While much recent focus has been placed on the private school sector, Britain’s independent schools are far from the only means through which financial resources have an impact on schooling. The use of private tuition outside school is one of the most important. Private tutoring has been referred to as the ‘shadow education system’, operating in parallel to Britain’s schools. It’s big business, with some estimates putting the British market at a value of £2 billion, and it has substantial impacts on parents, children and teachers. 

The Education Endowment Foundation has shown that one-to-one and small-group tuition is one of the most effective ways of improving attainment. It is natural that parents want to do anything they can to help their children, but private tutoring can cost anything from £25-£30 per hour, and is out of reach for many ordinary families. 

The Sutton Trust has been monitoring the growth of the private tutoring industry for almost 15 years. Our most recent data shows that more than one in four (27%) of children have received private tuition, up from 18% in 2005. This rises to 41% in London, where both competition and financial resources are high. Nationally, pupils from more affluent households (34%) are substantially more likely than less affluent (20%) to use private tutoring. In the context of a comprehensive school system, this inevitably fosters inequality. Educational success should not be based on the ability to pay. 

In an increasingly competitive education environment, where parents and students alike are forced to battle to stay ahead of the game in the race to get in to the most prestigious universities and good jobs, it is unsurprising that the demand for private tuition has grown. GCSEs, 11+ exams and A levels all come with increasing levels of pressure on both pupils and schools. 

What is most interesting from this year’s survey is the role of schools themselves in the growth of private tuition. 18% of primary school heads report their school having passed on information to parents about paid-for private tuition. And one in four secondary school teachers (24%) say they have taken on private tuition out of hours in the last two years. Most of this work (about two thirds) is reported to have come about through direct contact with parentsSo there is clear demand from parents for extra help for children who might be struggling in certain subjects. It is also understandable that teachers, whose pay has been subject to continuous pay freezes during the last decade, are willing to take on such work. But this results in a serious issue for equity in education. 

So what can be done? There are a variety of tuition agencies already taking innovative approaches to the problem. Tutorfair, for example, provide a certain proportion of their tutoring for free to disadvantaged students. The Tutor Trust trains undergraduates to provide pupils with individual and small group tuition in English, Maths, and Science. Schools pay for this tuition for their pupils at below market rates, usually with Pupil Premium funding. But more needs to be done. 

Given that one-to-one and small group tuition has been identified as a cost-effective way of improving attainment, schools should prioritise these approaches in their Pupil Premium spending where possible, so that pupils who need this assistance the most can access help. However in the medium term, government needs to look at making sure schools have the resources to provide such tuition in the school environment to pupils regardless of their background or financial resources, rather than needing to direct parents to paid-for services that many simply cannot afford. One way of doing this could be through a means-tested voucher system. 

The issue is an awkward one. Parents understandably want to do as much as they can to support their children. Teachers are keen to supplement their pay packets with extra tutoring work. And schools benefit from paid for tutoring if it helps to boost their league table results. All experience pressures of different sorts, and this context is key. But the negative impacts of private tuition on equity are difficult to deny. It will require concerted effort to bring shadow schooling into the light, but what is needed first is a genuine recognition of the problem.