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Blog Post

Does private tuition exacerbate educational inequality?

2nd June 2015

The drivers of educational attainment are complex. On the one hand, a child’s lot in life can be dramatically improved when they are exposed to excellent school teaching.  For example, pupils from poorer backgrounds in Britain have been shown to gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning in a single year when taught by very effective teachers, compared to only 0.5 years with badly performing teachers.

On the other hand, educational inequality in the UK is entrenched, with the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment being their socioeconomic background. As Helen Barnard’s analysis demonstrates, educational disparities begin very early and continue through to adulthood. Not only do children from richer backgrounds tend to receive better childcare and early years education, they tend to go on to study at better schools because their parents can afford to live near these schools.

This does not even take into account the huge advantages gained by the 7% of children who attend independent schools. More than four times as much is spent on teaching these children as on the average state-educated student, and as Danny Dorling recently pointed out, four private schools and one highly selective state sixth-form college currently send more children to Oxbridge than do 2,000 other secondary schools.

Extra-curricular inequality

While schooling is partly to blame for the gap in educational attainment, a significant source of inequality lies outside the classroom. To begin with, children who live in poor quality or overcrowded housing tend to be held back by worse physical and mental health. Overall, the physical environment is poorer, with parents less able to provide educational resources such as a computer or a child’s own room.

Further, children from less affluent backgrounds are the victims of what the Sutton Trust have recently termed ‘extra-curricular inequality’. This refers to the extra support which better-off families can provide for their children, in particular the use of private tutors, or broader enrichment activities such as music lessons, museum visits, or trips to the theatre. As the Trust states,

Private tuition has obvious benefits, but previous research has also shown that ‘softer’ cultural experience (cultural capital) and participation in extra-curricular activities like music, dance, and sports can have a positive effect on both educational attainment and career outcomes.

Although The Sutton Trust recognises that parents of all backgrounds engage their children in extra-curricular activities, it also found ‘a pronounced social gradient in both the provision of private tuition, and in participation in extracurricular cultural and social activities’.

Private tuition: exacerbating educational inequality?

The figures presented by The Sutton Trust on private tuition are sobering. Parents in social group A (managers, professionals etc) were 70% more likely than those in social groups B and C1 (intermediate managers, clerical workers etc) to report that their children had received private tuition. They were also around two to three times more likely to do so than parents in social groups C2, D, and E (skilled and unskilled manual workers, casual workers, unemployed etc).

The differences between social groups were starker when it came to spending on private tutors for school entrance exams such as the 11+. In this context, parents in social group A were three to four times more likely to have used a private tutor to help their child get into grammar school than parents in the other five social groups. This finding helps dispel any notion that grammar schools can be an engine for social mobility.

Even more striking is The Sutton Trust’s revelation that children attending private schools were significantly more likely than other children to receive additional private tuition. This result demonstrates the lengths to which wealthy parents will go in ensuring the best educational outcomes for their children.

New directions for private tuition

Is there anything that can be done to mitigate the privilege which private tuition seems to offer wealthier families?

Firstly, rather than succumb to the notion that private tuition is for the privileged, many now recognise that this form of teaching should be stripped of its historical baggage. In other words, private tuition is fundamentally a medium of instruction which can be harnessed to benefit children of any background. For example, parents with limited funds can tutor their own child, and many are now taking advantage of the lower costs of private group tuition. Some tuition centres in the UK, such as Explore Learning, will even accept government childcare vouchers.

Tutoring is also now fairly commonplace in the school setting, with charities such as Action Tutoring and The Tutor Trust providing maintained schools with one-to-one tutors on a volunteer basis or at very reasonable rates.

On a much larger scale, many schools are also paying for private tuition using the pupil premium scheme. According to Ofsted, two-fifths of schools are now using the pupil premium to pay for one-to-one tuition. However, the use of public money to employ tutors predominantly through private tuition agencies is not without controversy, and concerns have been raised over quality and value for money in such arrangements. There are, moreover, some salutary lessons from the United States.

How about online tuition?

Finally, online tuition is seen by some as a useful tool for improving the chances of children from poorer families.

Firstly, the cost of online tuition can be cheaper. In addition, the online medium may be able to deal with some of the inequalities associated with access and geographical location. For example, students and schools in rural areas are able to choose from a much greater range of tutors online, and online tutors can work with students who it would be otherwise uneconomic to travel to.

For further information, The Tutor Pages has recently published a report on online tuition, for which tutors were surveyed on the topic of online tuition and educational equality.


1 comment on “Does private tuition exacerbate educational inequality?”

  1. I feel tuition can be an equaliser if you’re unfortunate to be in a school zone with a school that performs badly or is not delivering the support your student needs.

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