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.

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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.

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