Education: When average isn't enough

Parents are turning increasingly to private tutors to help give their children the edge in competing for places at the top schools - but are they over-reacting and placing youngsters under unnecessary pressure?
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The Independent Online
Parents of secondary school pupils have often employed tutors to improve the chances of their offspring at GCSE or A-level. Ten years ago they formed the majority of those seeking tutors. Increasingly, however, it is not just struggling but average, and even above average, primary aged children who are being given extra teaching. Parents are anxious for them to have the edge over their peers even at the earliest levels of the education process. Private tuition is used to fill the gaps.

Parents who use tutoring to help their children catch up or improve their grades at GCSE and A-level are now in the minority. Many parents today are looking at private tuition to give their children some of the advantages of private education. Private tuition is a more affordable, or philosophically desirable, alternative to abandoning the state system.

Many primary schools with large classes are unable to provide the individual help, which is a feature of much private education. Children's weaknesses can go unnoticed. Tutoring provides the individualised quality of teaching which many parents would like for their children. The tutor reassures them very specifically about their child's progress and focuses on areas of weakness.

Bob Adey runs the tutoring agency "London's Learning", based in east London. He currently employs more than 40 tutors, all qualified teachers, but says he needs many more to cope with increasing demand. His agency is seeing a rapid growth in the numbers of parents with children of primary age coming for tutoring. He is sure that many parents are coming to see the standard assessment tasks, taken when the children are about seven at the end of key stage one of the national curriculum, or at about 11 at the end of key stage two, as a form of public examination.

This was not what was intended at their inception. The Government wanted the tests to act as a benchmark for measuring schools, not individual attainment. Many educators and parents feared it was an examination and selection process by another name. These fears now seem justified and they are creating new pressures. There is evidence across the country to suggest that parents are using the tests at age seven as evidence to push their children on.

One South Wales agency, for example, found that up to 80 per cent of new clients were concerned about progress in the junior school years, following average results in standard assessment tests at seven. Tutoring agencies in Birmingham and Manchester confirm that what is happening in London is just as true of their agencies. Parents are coming to them with concerns both for their children's progress, but more importantly because they are thinking a couple of years ahead to when their children have to be accepted into popular and over-subscribed secondary schools.

The reason is connected directly to concern over which secondary school their child will get into - preferably one high up in the GCSE performance league tables.

There are schools all over the country with poor academic record and a consequent low rating in the league tables. They exist in areas where the "cream" has been scooped by other more successful schools. In the so-called market place of education, success has bred more success, leading to intense competition for places in some secondary schools. A child's academic level is increasingly considered in awarding places in oversubscribed schools. Parents sense selection by the back door and are simply responding to that. Anxious parents turn to private tuition to help their child rise above the average.

Finding the money for one hour's weekly tuition is a struggle for Christi's mother, Susan. She feels her nine-year-old daughter is not being pushed at her London primary school, where she is in a class of 35, and that her work is not of a high standard. Susan's original concerns stemmed from Christi's average results in SATs at key stage one. She wants Christi to be achieving above average results.

Julia and Mark are typical of the people who are turning to tutoring to give their child an extra edge in the fight for a place at a "good" comprehensive. They live in south London and both have full-time careers. They do not have all the time they would like to give to help their children with their work. In the area where they live there are two comprehensives. One gets good examination results, the other does not. There is intense competition for places at at the "good" comprehensive. It is a picture repeated across the country.

Their son Jason is eight. He enjoys learning and is doing well at school. Julia and Mark want him to do better. Last year in his end of key stage one tests, Jason was assessed as level 2, the national average, in maths, science and English. His parents want him to be above the national average. They believe that being "average" won't be enough to guarantee his place in the good school in a few years time.

For Julia and Mark, tutoring reduces anxiety about their child's progress. Jason's handwriting was very poor, but after two months it is improving and his basic maths skills are better than they were. "There shouldn't be such a difference in standards between schools," says Julia. "All schools should have a mix of children from a variety of backgrounds, and work toward high standards. Tony Blair talks about "opportunity for all", and yet we have an increasingly divisive state education system.

"We have a responsibility as parents to do the best by our children, but frankly the system stinks. The previous government talked about "choice". There is no choice - just a mad scramble for places at the good schools and a huge amount of stress."

Alice Kalu, a deputy head teacher at a primary school in London, is not in favour of young children being tutored, but understands why people are worried. "Who can blame parents when schools are reduced to collecting vast quantities of tokens offered by national newspapers and crisp companies to buy books? If schools had sufficient resources they would be able to educate children effectively. Parents wouldn't have to resort to having their children tutored to allay their fears."

Denis Kitchener, a spokesman for the National Association of Head Teachers, feels that the rise in tutoring is an over-reaction by parents. "It stresses children out, and can be counter-productive. Parents are taking too much notice of SATs results. They don't carry any weight for children."

High achievement has never been so important. The intense pressure to do well and the competition for secondary places are not signs of good health in our education system. It places unfair pressure on children from an earlier and earlier age. However, with parents wanting to give their children the edge from their very first days in school, and a plethora of tutoring agencies to meet the demand, private tutoring is set to become big business.