Independent schools and private tutors: marriage of minds or strange bedfellows?
The stories of Western education and private tuition are so intertwined that a legitimate historical reading would identify them as one and the same.
Tutors through history
The stories of Western education and private tuition are so intertwined that a legitimate historical reading would identify them as one and the same. From the genesis of Western intellectual, social and educational tradition private tutors played a significant role – Aristotle emerged from Plato’s academy to tutor Alexander the Great, Ptolemy and Cassander before focusing on his own written compositions. In Renaissance Europe private tuition was intrinsically linked to the historically pivotal humanist movement: the most well-known proponent of humanism, Erasmus earned his living as a private tutor while Michael de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay form, credited his unusually brilliant grasp of language to the daily Latin tuition he received as a boy. Private tuition has been adjunct to private schooling for as long as people have sought education for their children. While many influential figures in British cultural life at one point made their living as teachers in the public schools – Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, Aldeous Huxley to name a few - many giants of European culture earned their keep as private tutors - Mozart, James Joyce and Albert Camus amongst their number. Historically, both private tutors and private schools were prestigious forms education - a means to invite fine minds to play their part in shaping the next generation.
It’s self-evident that private tutors and private schools share similar goals, similar clients, face similar challenges and attract similar people into their ranks. Why then did such a sense of mistrust develop between the two fields? What was behind the relationship break down and is a rapprochement possible?
To understand the relationship between the two professions, it’s helpful to look at the different phases of growth in both fields. While the UK independent schools date back to the middle ages, the real explosion in the growth and influence of public schools came in the Victorian era. The likes of Thomas Arnold at Rugby and Kennedy at Shrewsbury reformed the school curricula to include music, drama and sport alongside academia with a view to developing balanced young men - possessed of qualities of the soldier and the scholar - who would go on to lead both in burgeoning British industry and the globally dominant British Empire. Independent schools have played a significant role in British life ever since the 19th century and while the sector has evolved over the last two centuries, private school numbers have long been stable at around seven percent of all secondary school students. A number of public schools have come to be viewed as established reference points in the British educational landscape.
Private Tuition developed along very different lines. While medieval Royals and Nobles did benefit from a cursory level of academic tuition in the form of Christian instruction from their family chaplain or occasionally from monks, there was little of what we would recognise in modern tuition. It was centuries later, in the Victorian era when a new figure came to prominence within the field of private tuition: the governess. The governess was a female tutor whose duties would encompass the intellectual, social and emotional upbringing of the children of wealthy households. The life and role of a governess were most famously presented to the public in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Both Emily and Charlotte Brontë worked as governesses and although the figure may seem somewhat archaic, it remains a role that many families choose to create in their households. In terms of the overall nature of the position – one tutor taking up an intensive full-time role with a single family – it is essentially the format of tuition that was most popular throughout most of the 19th and 20th century Britain. Ultimately though, such tutors are a high-ticket service, unaffordable and impractical to all but the most well-heeled families.
It is really during the late 20th century and early part of the 21st century that private tuition has seen a boom akin to the growth of independent schools in the 19th century. This is a pattern seen not only in the UK, but across the world. It reflects the general increase in overall education levels, not least amongst parents born in the 50s, 60s and 70s who had the confidence, purchasing power and, crucially, a belief in the importance of academic education in shaping the future of their children. This empowerment led to an increased market demand and by the early 2000s the tuition boom began in earnest. Individual tutors began to professionalise, and agencies sprang up. The tuition industry has exploded over the last two decades and growth has continued in the last few years as the makeup of the industry has moved from small boutique agencies and individual tutors to national franchises and tutor collectives. Meanwhile the possibilities offered by online tuition have opened new avenues for tutors and students.
Independent schools and private tutors represent two effective and successful formats for education educating and enriching students. The aim of both is to help the next generation navigate the gamut of challenges that the educational process presents. If it seems that there is no inherent pedagogical conflict between the two professions, that is because there really isn’t. The friction develops, as one might expect, when money enters the conversation. The current tuition market is, to some extent, a product of the Western shift to not only neo-liberal policies, but to a generation of people with a neo-liberal mindset – consumers looking for the best products, services and brands at a competitive price. The modern parent is a discerning buyer when it comes to maximising the return on their investment. Education has increasingly become a results business. Independent schools market themselves on their grades and private tutors and tuition agencies are able to offer a service that has a tried and tested impact on students’ final marks.
Unfortunately, a common assumption seems to be that schools and private tutors, as independent providers of education, must inevitably be competitors. In addition to this, there has been a widely held view that if a student attending a fee-paying school requires extra help in the form of tuition, then something must be going wrong in their schooling. On closer examination it is clear that both ideas are well wide of the mark. Tutors, far from being competitors with independent schools, are allies and collaborators, even if often that collaboration is unspoken and unseen. It’s extraordinarily rare for a parent take their child out of a private school in favour of employing the services of a tutor. A school offers many things that a tutor cannot: community, group learning, extra-curricular activities, high-cost specialised facilities to name but a few. Similarly, a tutor is able to offer a level of individual attention to a student’s work that is simply unparalleled. No school can or will ever be able to achieve this as there is simply no way for a teacher to focus a single student for an entire class. The roles of both tutors and independent schools are fundamentally different yet both offer great benefits to students. The complementary nature of tuition work to the interests of schools is not just a pleasant idea – there are real implications. The additional academic progress a student makes with a tutor will have a positive effect on that student’s grades and this ultimately also benefits the school. Whether grades are a decent metric of education is an important question, but there is no doubt that they currently weigh heavily in the reputation of schools. In addition to this, students who are afforded the individual attention of a tutor re-enter the classroom a more focused and productive student, often having a positive effect on classmates.
The notion that parents seeking tuition reflects poorly on a fee-paying school is a basic misconception. In any class of fifteen, twenty or twenty-five students, the attention of the teacher is by necessity divided. This is no reflection on the quality of the teaching but an inherent fact in all schooling. It’s common sense that there are always times when everyone, no matter how talented or motivated, needs some extra help. This is where private tuition can be invaluable. I liken a private tutor to playing the role of a personal trainer in the context of a professional sports team. There is a coach who, much like a teacher, oversees the group and gives what attention they can to individuals. Meanwhile, a personal trainer will focus on individual players who require specialised attention. The end result is a group of players who perform to their potential and everybody in the equation benefits. This is a synergistic dynamic, not a zero-sum game.
The relationship between independent schools and private tutors is one that has certainly warmed over the past few years. When considering the future of the independent education sector, it’s germane to look to the two most world-renowned and successful British educational institutions: Oxford and Cambridge. Although their courses have necessarily developed and evolved over time, the educational framework has remained consistent - it blends lectures, classes, seminars, group work, and one-to-one or pair tutorials. Indeed the tutorial system is as prominent a feature of an Oxbridge education as the world class facilities and expertise on offer. With the numbers of students working with private tutors only increasing year on year and, according to some statistics, reaching around a quarter of students in the capital, it seems that more and more families are opting to follow a mini-Oxbridge template for their children’s education. This can only be positive development for both tutors and independent schools alike.
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