Tutoring: A fresh debate

I’ve just finished an article on tuition, and am boldly looking for a publisher!

I thought I’d share it here:

Tutoring: a fresh debate.

Private tuition has entered the national conversation. For long a rather mysterious operation, the media has woken up to its rapid growth – especially after the Sutton Trust showed that 43% of children nationally had received private tuition. This openness in the media is both symptom and cause of a similar openness amongst parents. No longer a whispered secret, recommendations and warnings about certain tutors and agencies are now regularly swapped outside the school gates.

Regrettably, this openness has led to very little debate on the merits and demerits of tuition – or much analysis as to why parents are seeking it in such droves. Some commentators have seen in tuition a desire to recapture the cosy world of governesses and nurseries. Others have reached, inevitably, for the recession as a possible explanation – either that a place in a good school is even more essential in the long march to the furiously-competitive job market, or that tuition is parents’ compensation for choosing state education. Where are the considerations of its impact on learning, or the larger questions posed by its rise?

So: do children (or some children) learn better as a result of a one-on-one tutoring? What sort of learning goes on one-on-one? The answer is that you can regulate the learning in a very specific way: whether you’re looking for focused troubleshooting (fractions, decimals) – or a deeper exploration (“why do we have cases in Latin?”), the form is flexible to the content. The former is the most popular, and areas of misunderstanding (sometimes layered up over years of confusion) can be quickly unblocked with a good tutor. For some subjects and topics in particular, such as Maths and Languages, this creates something of a delicious learning environment. There’s no hiding in tuition, no slouching at the back of the class hoping that you wont be asked a question. Many parents talk about the benefits tuition delivers for self-esteem. It is not difficult to see why, when students are given the opportunity to learn in an environment where questions can be unlimited – and where it is okay to be wrong.

What is lost here? For one, certain subjects are assuredly enriched by class learning. Let us not be dewy-eyed: friends of mine who have taught for 40 years or more have described how rare it is to witness impassioned class debate and the clashing of young minds, even amongst the brightest. What classroom teaching does offer, though, especially in subjects like English, History and R.S are classes that arrive at richer or more correct answers together – building on each other’s mistakes. That’s lost in tuition. The classroom experience also develops other important skills: the ability to concentrate, for instance, WITHOUT someone constantly watching over you, the ability to wait one’s turn.

There are other dangers too. If they’re not careful, tutors can become crutches for their charges/tutees so that students never learn the crucial experience of being baffled, and of working things out on their own. Of greater concern, a tutor who is not in touch with the class teachers can tie confused students up in knots with different methodologies or conflicting comments about the school. It is no wonder that there used to be something of an impasse between schools and tutors, when children would return to school with accusatory comments: “my tutor tells me that you shouldn’t mark work like this!”

The debate about schooling itself would be so enriched by some more examination of these issues. If there is a consensus, say, that basic numeracy is far better taught 1-on-1, let’s be bold and say so. Then the debate can continue: we (as parents, schools, LEAs, governments) can’t afford 1-on-1, it might be argued, in which case school learning should be understood as an economic compromise. Or it might be said that, regardless of the efficacy of 1-on-1, sheer learning is not as much of a priority as concentration, waiting one’s turn, getting on with others – in which case, could we be more creative with school timetables, staffing, bringing in help from outside the school? One last one: what does it say about schooling that some tutors can repeat word-for-word the advice of teachers/parents but that something about the delivery, tone and atmosphere of a tutorial makes it sink in?

Given the Conservatives have put at the centre of their education policy a return to “chalk-and-talk” traditional classroom teaching, these issues make fertile discussion indeed. Tutoring rarely provides all the answers, but the questions it poses feel particularly relevant, if not urgent, at the moment.

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