Unnerving Thought For The Day: wealth secures educational advantage!

Melissa Benn's picture
Surreal discussion on the Today programme this morning on the sharp rise in private tutoring, particularly in London. The item was based on an Evening Standard article, which reported complaints from Ben Thomas, head of prep school Thomas’s Battersea, that there is now far too much tutoring in the capital — and that pupils’ childhoods are being “swallowed up” because they are spending so much time being coached after school, ‘devouring’ the time of children ‘ as young as three. “I’ve got a real anxiety about tutoring. It’s unregulated and unproven. It devours children’s time when they should be having a childhood.”

Mr Thomas was duly on the radio this morning battling it out with William Petty, director of Tutoring at Bona Macfarlane Education; there was much legitimate concern expressed about the wisdom of young children doing two to three hours extra lessons on top of a full day at a school, having to eat their supper while being taught and not getting to bed until late and so on.

Strangely, no one thought to highlight the direct connection between this ‘tiger economy’ approach to our children’s early years and Mr Gove's clear statement at a recent Spectator schools conference that Coalition education policy is now directly focussed on winning the race for global competitiveness. (‘What - only three hours extra tutoring after school? Don’t you know the Koreans work until 11 pm?' etc)

However, there then developed a slightly surreal exchange between Today presenter Justin Webb and the head of the tutoring company over Webb’s concerns that the rise of private tutoring was benefitting only the well-off.

In a tone approaching indignation, Webb put the argument - based on recent evidence from America, he claimed - that those who can pay for extra lessons in the early years of their child's school life establish a firm advantage, educationally speaking, over those who cannot afford it and that this privilege is sustained throughout their lifetime.

Am I missing something or is this not the entire raison d’etre of private education? And if it is wrong, why decry private tutoring but not the private school system which has institutionalised this advantage over such a long period and so skilfully that the naked connection between wealth and advantage is now both obscured and reframed as a matter of parental choice, institutional ‘independence’ and innate educational excellence?

William Petty’s - rather defensive - answer to Webb was to declare that he was acutely aware of the problem of wealth buying educational advantage and that he hoped that the private tutoring industry would soon develop more charitable aspects.

Ah, so perhaps we will soon see the Coalition underwriting ‘charitable status’ for private tutoring companies? Will we see companies like Bona Macfarlane loan out their tutors at a reduced rate to struggling state schools on the odd Saturday morning?

Unfortunately, the Today interview did not touch on some interesting points brought out by the original Evening Standard piece. Apparently, some of the heads of private schools, such as London’s St Paul’s, are now asking parents to declare on application forms whether they have tutored their children as research from the Girls’ Schools Association indicated that heads of senior schools discourage the practice as they believe it ‘ masks the child’s innate abilities.' ( Leaving aside how one decides on a child's 'innate abilities' in the first place, surely an elite primary education is also going to 'mask' a child's natural talent, if one chooses to think in this way?)

Mr Thomas also told the Evening Standard that selective schools had added to the problem: “The thought that we’ve created a system where we’ve got three-year-olds being coached to get through an entrance test is fundamentally wrong.”

Now that would have been an interesting talking point.
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