Dr Philip Kirby on his report into private tuition, the hidden secret of British education

‘Shadow education’ is the academic term – and it captures well what we know, or rather don’t know about the world of private tuition. There’s little regulation of the industry, which means there’s very little data. That’s why I was so pleased to have the chance to bring together what we do know – and some fascinating new data – for our latest report, Shadow Schooling.

Using polling from Ipsos MORI (that the Sutton Trust has commissioning annually for over a decade), we found that a quarter of pupils between ages 11-16 have received private tuition at some point in their life. Each year, about one in 10 of the same age group receive tuition, in everything from maths and English (the most popular subjects tutored), to music lessons (piano’s the most popular), to targeted training in passing grammar school entrance exams (which has led some grammars to pioneer ‘tutor-proof’ exams).

How much is this all costing? Estimates for this report, based on the number of students receiving and average cost, amongst other factors, suggest that the British market is worth up to £2 billion. With even reasonably priced tutoring costing about £25 per hour, it’s a huge expense for parents and families, some of whom are more able to afford it than others.

Poorer children, as you might expect, are less able to afford tuition than others. Of those aged 11-16, 17% of students who receive free school meals have ever had tuition, but this rises to 26% for those who have not. In 2015, there was a 28 percentage point gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students achieving at least 5 GCSEs at A*-C, including English and maths. Differing access is almost certainly contributing to this gap already, with the promise of widening it further.

So, what can be done? One option is for a means-tested voucher scheme, which could be funded through the Pupil Premium and allow less advantaged families to access tutoring, as well as others. It’s disadvantaged pupils who would benefit from tutoring most, but it’s also disadvantaged pupils who have least access. Similar schemes have been used in other countries and contexts.

Another contribution to solving this problem is the best practice shown by some tutoring agencies that I spoke to for the report. Tutorfair, for example, provides a certain proportion of its tutoring for free to disadvantaged students in inner city schools. This might not be feasible for small tutoring agencies, but for those of a decent size, it would be help if such best practice became the norm.

Groups such as the Tutors’ Association are also trying to bring some structure to the industry – offering accredited status to tutors who, amongst other qualifications, have passed Disclosure Barring Service (DBS) checks. The NSPCC recently called for all private tutors to have DBS checks as standard. These can be difficult for individuals to acquire (many tutors don’t work through agencies, which can sponsor them), so the process for applying for DBS certification should be made as straightforward as possible.

There are no easy solutions, of course. The differing access to tuition reflects wider socio-economic inequalities in the UK, so ensuring equal access to tuition cannot be accomplished solely from within the industry. But it’s important that avenues are opened for pupils who don’t currently receive tuition and would like to. Shadow schooling might be partially hidden, but that only makes it more important to shine a light on it.

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