Inequality in Education and the Transition to Employment - RSA

Is the boom in private tutoring fuelling inequality in education?


  • Picture of Susannah Hardyman FRSA
    Susannah Hardyman FRSA
    Founder and CEO of a national education charity, tackling disadvantage and the attainment gap.
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Every year, the Sutton Trust publish their annual private tutoring statistics, which pick up a brief flurry of media interest. The figures have remained steady the last few years, with this autumn’s poll showing that 27% of 11-16 year olds have had a private tutor at some point, with that figure rising to 41% in London.

Since becoming a parent a couple of years ago, I really get why so many parents will pay for tutoring: parents really do want the best for their children. If that means paying for a tutor to support them, they will do if they have the means.

There’s a problem in all of this though. Private tutoring is expensive (easily £40 or more an hour in London) and many parents simply cannot afford it. This doesn’t mean those parents don’t want the best for their children or that those children aren’t capable. Yet there is an embarrassing and substantial attainment gap that still exists in education in this country between disadvantaged pupils and their better off peers. The recent Education Policy Institute Education in England annual report highlighted that progress on the attainment gap is slowing: at primary level disadvantaged pupils on average leave school 9.2 months behind their peers. That’s nearly an entire school year before they even start secondary school. By the time they leave secondary school, disadvantaged pupils are on average over 18 months behind, with just 1/3 achieving national standards, a key factor that can then lead to them ending up not in education, employment or training (NEET.)

I became aware of just how big an industry private tutoring is when I moved to London as a recent graduate over a decade ago and started doing some tutoring, watching multiple recent graduate friends also jumping on the same bandwagon. I had a hunch that a lot of these people would be willing to tutor for free for those that couldn’t afford it. The seed of this idea just wouldn’t go away. In 2011, myself and a small group of supporters piloted some voluntary tutoring in a couple of schools. Pupils turned up, schools loved it and people were keen to volunteer. Following some seed funding, we were then able to pilot on a bigger scale and start replicating to other cities.

Teacher and school pupil speaking, sat at a classroom desk

Today Action Tutoring supports over 3,000 pupils a year from disadvantaged backgrounds at risk of not achieving national standards in English and maths. We work in partnership with schools across 8 cities, with all tutoring delivered through the power of volunteers. Our aim is that young people can leave school with the qualifications that will enable them to progress to further education, employment or training and avoid the cycle of becoming NEET. For parents paying for private tutoring, this is surely their most basic aim, with many paying for private tutors to push their 

children to the A* grades that will get them into top universities. Our impact and evidence base is ever growing: tutoring works and we’re proving that our model works too. While we can’t stop the rise in private tutoring, we can offer an alternative and equivalent for those that need it most.

The reasons for the attainment gap are multifaceted and complicated. Tutoring alone won’t solve it, but I do believe targeted, effective interventions such as tutoring can make a big difference and be part of the solution, having an impact not just on pupils grades, but to their confidence and attitude to learning as well – something our link teachers and tutors report time and time again. Since Action Tutoring registered as a charity, we’ve been so impressed at how many people have come forward wanting to volunteer to help us in our mission to tackle educational disadvantage. They share our belief that tutoring should be available for those that need it and not just those that can afford it. We have ambitious plans to keep growing and know that there are many more young people who could benefit from our support. If any fellows are interested in volunteering as a tutor, or know a school that could benefit from working with us, then please do get in touch.

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Further reading: Sutton Trust - Private Tuition 2019 Report

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