Private tuition and the decay of state education

Vast numbers of pupils rely on private tuition for a decent education. The state must do better.

Andrew Macdonald Powney

Topics Politics UK

Around 27 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds have received private tuition on top of their normal schooling, rising to 41 per cent in London, according to a report by the Sutton Trust. Around 80,000 state-school teachers – one in four secondary teachers – have moonlighted as private tutors. This trend is concerning: it speaks to the hollowing-out of state education and is compounding educational inequalities.

Kids are caught in the middle. Parents fear that schools may let their kids down. Then, a parental arms race ensues. As the Sutton Trust’s report puts it, ‘demand for education outstrips public-sector supply’. Wealthier families buy disproportionately more tuition, with few poorer families in ordinary schools being able to stump up for the hourly rate of £25 to £40 and above.

This inequality of access to private tutors risks greater inequalities of outcome. Tutors are able to devote time and attention to each pupil in a way that is not possible in a big classroom. A lot of classroom teaching now has the feel of an exam factory. But teaching kids one-on-one, carefully and in a focused way, is undeniably effective.

To make matters worse, most state schools are getting caught up with faddish initiatives that seem to be increasingly taking over the school day. From PSHE to school-sanctioned bunking off lessons to go on climate protests, state schools are crowding out lesson time with all manner of events that they think look good for their market image, but do little for kids’ education.

Teaching has also become more career-orientated in recent years, and organising these initiatives and days out looks good on teachers’ CVs. All this means that teaching time is getting squeezed. According to a survey by the National Education Union, 61 per cent of teachers spend over three hours a day on tasks that do not involve teaching, with 13 per cent working more than 30 hours per week on non-teaching activities.

The core business of schools – opening minds and exploring ideas – has been hollowed out significantly. Private tuition is where the ground is made up, with children having to put in extra work out of hours. Learning from home may well become the norm when the curriculum reaches its final point of degradation.

Last month, the Labour Party promised to abolish private schools. Much of the policy was focused on nationalising their assets, particularly their land and buildings, to integrate private schools into the state sector. But Labour had nothing to say on the content of education in the state sector, which is letting kids down and causing parents to turn to tutors.

The Sutton Trust report on private tuition has lifted a rock, and the underside makes Labour’s focus on private schools look like rearranging deckchairs. One of the Sutton Trust’s own suggestions for tackling this huge educational inequality is to encourage tuition agencies to provide some of their services pro bono. But this would leave the education system intact and allow the problem to fester, with poorer kids sent to the equivalent of an education food-bank.

The rise of private tuition is a huge wake-up call about the state of our education system.

Andrew Macdonald Powney is a writer.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK



14th October 2019 at 8:58 pm

There is no justification for these English ‘public’ schools. The Finnish system has far superior education outcomes and they don’t have these absurd social engineering institutions. Only in England could a situation in which the top 7 percent comprised of the privately educated elite dominate the 93 percent of proles be considered in any sense ‘democratic’. I guess it’s democratic by Angevin standards, but the rest of the world has moved on, even if the UK hasn’t.


Iftikhar Ahmad

7th October 2019 at 9:57 pm

Thick children of rich parents could hire tutors for their children and this is the main reason why British education is in a mess.

Almost all children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. Leading companies are struggling to recruit teenagers with basic skills because schools have been turned into “exam factories”, business leaders have warned. Many employers had been left “disheartened and downright frustrated” by poor levels of literacy, numeracy, communication and timekeeping among school leavers and graduates. Overemphasis on sitting exams and hitting targets throughout compulsory education had robbed children of the chance to develop the “soft” skills needed in the work place. Business leaders believed the emphasis on passing exams at school meant children failed to develop other skills, including the ability to hold a conversation, display good work ethic, turn upon time and apply basic literacy and numeracy.

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 9:26 am

“Thick children of rich parents could hire tutors for their children and this is the main reason why British education is in a mess.”
Unfortunate hash of a sentence, but do you really believe that paid-for tuition will ‘unthick’ the thick (rich) kids?
They have the right (as in more effective) idea in the USA, where rich folks just bribe the colleges to admit their underachieving offspring. The kids will still be turnips, but they’ll have Harvard or Yale on their CVs.

jessica christon

7th October 2019 at 8:21 pm

Able students are just that – able. They learn quickly compared to everyone else with or without extra tuition, it’s just that it’s become unfashionable to admit that some children are academically bright and others aren’t. This is why things like private tuition get overemphasised as being these big game changers when they aren’t, really. I went to school with some exceptionally bright but also poor kids. They had no private tutors, but what they had was books at home and parents who took an interest in their education.

Gareth Edward KING

7th October 2019 at 6:47 pm

I’ve been a Biology and Chemistry teacher in the private sector a number of years in both the UK and in Spain. I have seen how the offical syllabi reduce learning to mere chunks. If the teacher can be freed up to put together their own syllabus, or at least to re-interpret it, it does make a difference to the classroom ‘experience’ to a huge degree. Last summer I was able to emphasise field work and methodology in Biology to an extent unthinkable in the state sector. It’s amazing what one can collect in a simple run-off pond and get A’level students to work on the morphology and taxonomy of insects and get to grips with the etymology of their scientific names.

Andrew Best

7th October 2019 at 5:28 pm

Scrap charity status of private schools, good idea
Closing down and stealing their property, no
The idea a working class person on £10 an hour can pay up to £40 an hour for tution, rubbish

Jim Lawrie

7th October 2019 at 7:22 pm

The tax advantage is outweighed 8 to 1 by the money they save the state sector.

The VAT they pay to the HMRC from renting out the buildings and fields for weddings, conferences etc … and the takings at the bar, grow every year.

The cost to the state of buying the assets and then paying for the education of these youngsters will do nothing to improve state schools. On the contrary ….

Ven Oods

8th October 2019 at 9:17 am

Agreed they shouldn’t be nationalised, but get rid of the charitable status. Ditto for churches.
Better-off parents will stiil use private education, and why should a secular populace subsidise religious belief?

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