The thorny issue of too much tutoring

Recent articles in the press have been lamenting the pressures put upon children, as young as three, by excessive tutoring for entrance examinations to private schools.

This is a really challenging issue for parents to grapple with, as the pressure to provide your children with the best possible life opportunities by getting them into the ‘best’ school and pushing them to achieve the ‘best’ grades in public examinations seems relentless. Social pressures and the dinner party circuit can lead parents to believe that tutoring is something that every set of parents is paying for, on top of their school fees, in order to ensure that their son or daughter can compete on a level playing field with other children. If you fail to provide a tutor for your children, are you failing them as parents.

The benefits of tutoring

Personal tutoring in particular subjects can be extremely valuable for some students, in certain circumstances. Where a student has reached a roadblock in their studies, perhaps a series of setbacks has led to a student falling behind or lacking confidence and personal tutoring can help to re-build that confidence or consolidate a knowledge base. Where a student needs a substantial amount of support due to their individual learning needs or educational background, tutoring can provide a boost to their performance and confidence, but that decision should be taken after careful consideration and ideally in discussion with their teachers.

What are the dangers?

Tutoring used in the wrong context however, could be extremely damaging; achieving a short term gain but with an extremely negative long-term cost. To take the example of tutoring for 11+ entrance examinations, it is vital to consider carefully what messages might be implanted. Suggesting to a child, that attending tutoring sessions will ‘fill you with knowledge’ that will enable you to jump a particular hurdle undoes a great deal of the good work that is done in schools. In the case of coaching a student to pass an exam, it sends the message that passing that exam is the only thing that matters about school; forget about love of learning, kindling of intellectual passions and the joy of engaging with a subject, ultimately if you don’t pass the exam, it is all irrelevant.

Of course, passing exams is a vital ticket to success, but in the long-term, it will be passion for learning and effectively acquired tools of independent scholarship that bring success, not a tutor. It further fuels the dangerous idea that students can simply receive wisdom from adults and teachers that they mindlessly learn and regurgitate to pass exams, rather than fostering a more tenacious and questioning approach that is far more beneficial to students in the long-term.

A wider perspective

I have been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to witness the effects of excessive tutoring and cramming classes first-hand in the South Korean educational environment. Students leave school at 4pm to attend Hagwon (or private academies) well into the night, where they are tutored in the syllabus they will learn the next day at school. They are so tired by the time they arrive at school that is considered perfectly normal to fall asleep in lessons and passively attend without participating in any way. These students can be highly effective at rote-learning, and thus perform very effectively in tests that contribute to South Korea’s high PISA rating, but this is also a country that has one of the highest child suicide rates in the world, cheating to pass examinations can be considered as culturally acceptable, and sport and creativity are not valued in many schools.

Of course, the tutoring industry in the UK is nowhere near South Korean proportions, but it is important to keep a check on when use of a tutor might be appropriate and I would argue tutoring a three-year old to get into the prep school of their parents’ choice is madness!

What’s the best approach?

A productive discussion between teachers, student and parents should be able to map out a strategy within school for any student who is temporarily struggling in a particular area; the support teachers offer does not end when the students leave the classroom, and nor should it. Competitive applications for several schools that require excessive tutoring can be damaging to a student’s attitude towards learning and counter-productive in the long-term; it is for this reason that many parents opt for an all-through 3-18 school, thus keeping the focus on learning and intellectual development, not hoop-jumping. To flourish in school, a child is much better equipped with a genuine love of learning and the confidence that they passed the examination through their own efforts and application, rather than the knowledge that education is about exhaustion, rote-learning and avoiding failure.

Mrs Carol Chandler Thompson, Headteacher, Blackheath High School, GDST

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