Private Tutoring: Help or Hinderance?

Comment National Issues University/Local Issues

Image description: two students looking at some papers.

Oxford’s yearly admissions statistics have recently been released, and on examination there are certainly things to celebrate: 68.4% of new undergraduates are from state schools. The ratio between students from the parts of the UK most likely to advance to higher education and those least likely has reduced from 11:1 in 2019 to 8:1 now, and the ratio of students from the most socio-economically advantaged areas to the least has similarly improved, from 4:1 to 3:1.

These statistics symbolise progress, but they do not tell the whole story. Access is complex, with endless interconnected factors that inhibit equality in educational attainment. Some reside in murky waters and are hard to find solutions for ‒ but they must be addressed. One of these factors which has a particularly insidious effect on socio-economic educational equality is private tutoring. 

To clarify: I am not referring to private tutoring for those who need it, who have perhaps fallen out of the traditional education system, or have additional needs that mean they cannot access their education effectively.

Access is complex, with endless interconnected factors that inhibit equality in educational attainment.

I am talking about tutoring for an edge. For a little extra help with personal statements. For entrance exams. For extra-curricular musical instruments. For the upper hand over other students in Maths. Just to be that one step ahead. Regardless of whether you think it is right or wrong to be able to pay for a better education, without adequate provisions for disadvantaged students, it is undeniably unfair.

There is a clear economic divide in access to private tutoring, highlighted by research from the Sutton Trust in 2016 (a charity focused on addressing educational inequality). They found that for students aged 11-16, those from richer families were twice as likely to have received private tuition than students from disadvantaged families. Students from private schools were also twice as likely to receive tuition than their state educated counterparts. Over a third of students from Years 6, 11 and 13 who had not had private tuition said it is because it is too expensive. Such disparity in access helps entrench the gap in educational attainment between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students and thus perpetuate cycles of inequality.

This does not mean private tuition and those who utilise it are conniving to create this divide, or that they are bad people for being part of its system. Many students from all walks of life become tutors to make money to support their studies whilst helping others. You are not evil for asking for money for spending your time and effort on helping someone succeed.

If the state education system is not providing what private schools can, private tuition is a cheaper option to try to even out that gap. Alternative programmes have also been created for disadvantaged students to access tutoring for free, such as Tutor Trust, which arguably help to reduce access concerns.

You are not evil for asking for money in return for spending your time and effort on helping someone succeed.

The issue is the private tuition system itself, not necessarily with those engaging with it. It is undeniably unfair to those who can’t afford it: an almost perfect symbol of the power of wealth superseding hard work. There is a lack of any sort of lasting or meaningful regulation to avoid this. Whilst schemes such as the Tutor Trust exist, there is no imperative for them to exist, or a standard of teaching they have to abide by. If you have money, tutoring is so much easier to access, and you have the ability to pay for flexibility in how you interact with it to get the most out of the experience. People are always going to pay for that power, so private tutoring is not going to go away.

Therefore we must harness its indisputable benefits so that all have the chance to gain from it. Private tuition has the power to reduce disadvantage rather than enhance it if steps are taken to reform its practise; the importance of this has been painfully highlighted by the impact of coronavirus measures on the education system. With schooling disrupted in an unprecedented way due to lockdown, students had to adapt to online learning; learning that varied wildly in its efficacy.

The Sutton Trust has reported that pupils from middle class households were nearly twice as likely to take part in recorded or online lessons every day than those from working class ones. In the most deprived schools in the UK, 15% of teachers reported that more than a third of their students would find it hard to access electronic devices to complete their work. Only 2% of teachers from more affluent schools reported the same. The long term ramifications of these discrepancies and the difficulties disadvantaged students have faced trying to access resources and learning support will be staggering. This is where private tutoring could make a massive difference to give targeted and individual support to the students who need it most. 

Private tuition has the power to reduce disadvantage rather than enhance it, if steps are taken to reform its practise; the importance of this has been painfully highlighted by the impact of coronavirus measures on the education system.

Several not-for-profit voluntary tutoring initiatives have already stepped in to start this work, such as the Coronavirus Tutoring initiative. The government also announced in June that they would fund private tutors for English schools to help minimise the impact of lockdown learning for pupils, particularly disadvantaged students. It remains to be seen how effective this will be once implemented. Nevertheless, it is a hugely positive step, and shows that those in charge know what needs to be done. 

However once this crisis is over the socio-economic gap in access to private tutoring will not disappear. The education system has a responsibility to provide long term changes in how people can access private tuition fairly. This involves the government taking further action to regulate the private tuition system and private tutoring businesses making an active effort to provide for disadvantaged students. Moreover, educational institutions themselves, such as Oxford, must take action to negate the disadvantage of those who cannot access this system right now. The Sutton Trust recommend that the government implement a means-tested voucher system for low income families to be able to access qualified tutors. They also advocate for the expansion of non-profit and state tutoring services, for private tutoring businesses to cater for disadvantaged students by offering pro-bono services, and for admissions tests to be made more tuition-proof.

It is difficult to regulate the private tutoring system in its entirety to any meaningful degree, especially when you consider the swathes of students who provide their own independent, informal tutoring services. But there are clear steps that can be taken – particularly for the more formal tutoring agencies who can make a significant impact. 

Educational institutions (particularly universities) must also take on part of the responsibility to close this gap. If they are truly committed to welcoming the best students possible they must make an effort to reduce the barriers students face in order to achieve. Oxford is making an effort with its current access schemes to reduce educational divides. The first cohort of Opportunity Oxford students will arrive this year, products of a residential scheme that allow offer holders from underrepresented backgrounds to get comfortable and learn skills to prepare them for university life. The UNIQ summer school gives hundreds of Year 12 students the chance to experience Oxford in its academic and social guises before applying to show them they belong there too. 

The Sutton Trust recommend that the government implement a means-tested voucher system for low income families to be able to access qualified tutors.

These schemes do fantastic work and are worth celebrating, however they tend to focus on helping disadvantaged students from sixth form age onwards. This does help negate the advantage of personal statement or interview tutoring, but the damage has already been done with the tutoring particularly prevalent among those aged 11-16. Oxford should be part of the solution, but the problem is wider than their normal remit.

Private tutoring in its current incarnation is just one example of the numerous processes that inhibit social mobility and perpetrate educational inequality in this country. It is a sizable obstacle to the educational success of disadvantaged students. However, there is scope for its undeniable benefits to be extended to all, by implementing policies such as the voucher system and encouraging early access schemes.

Every student deserves the best education possible, and private tutoring could be a force for good to guarantee this. It is the responsibility of the government and private tutoring businesses to make changes to ensure that it is, but educational institutions such as universities have a responsibility to adapt to inequalities embedded in the educational system from the start. If Oxford wants to truly make a difference in terms of access, they must examine their ability to mitigate this burden of private tutoring inequality.

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