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The race to ace: how mass tutoring risks children’s mental health and entrenching inequality


Sydney-based mother of two Fiona* was stressed about the effects of lockdown on her 10-year-old son’s learning. “When the lockdown happened everything went haywire,” she says, and they could barely cope with schoolwork. So she and her husband decided to “take a [financial] hit” and book their son in for four hours a week of coaching, all on the one day, at a cost of $800 per term.

Fiona is a recent migrant to Australia, and scarred by a comment made by a stranger about public schools “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in terms of student success rates. She is determined to do right by her child, whose motivation dived during lockdown. She hopes that tutoring will reinforce the expectations around school work that were a little more solid before the pandemic began.

When students returned to school this term after months of lockdown, some also returned to tutoring centres, spurred on by parent concerns over reports about student learning loss.

Worldwide, some have predicted a boom in the tutoring industry post pandemic. In Australia the tutoring sector already currently engages one in seven children and is a billion-dollar industry.

The Australian Tutoring Association reported a drop in tutoring during lockdown, due to the difficulties associated with the end of face-to-face teaching, but is expecting a rebound. Some tutoring companies, like Global Education Academy, have leaned in to pandemic anxiety with taglines such as “we’re here to help you during lockdown”, while others, like Cluey Learning, have reported signing up 1,000 families a month after 2020 lockdowns. The federal government’s Job Outlook reports show that the “strong growth” in the sector is on track to continue, with the number of tutors in Australia expected to rise from 44,300 to 48,900 by 2025.

But the push toward private tutoring comes with a number of considerations and concerns, namely the further entrenchment of learning inequalities, a lack of regulation, and the effect of all this extra study on a child’s mental health.

According to Prof Pasi Sahlberg, from the Gonski Institute of Education at the University of New South Wales, what parents decide to do with or for their children is their decision, particularly if their child has a particular need that ought to be addressed, but warns parents to discern the reasons for tutoring and the options they choose for their kids.

He says that “pedagogically-poor tutoring”, which focuses on rote-learning and routine drilling, can do more damage to a child’s cognitive development in the long term, when they are expected to master deeper learning and independent thinking at school, and to their interest and engagement in learning in general.

“Training kids to succeed in knowledge tests is a very different process than teaching them to understand the world and become curious about learning more,” he explains. “Teaching today aims at far deeper and broader goals [like] conceptual understanding, critical thinking, [and] practical application, [rather] than those typically found in private tutoring – memorising, recalling and routine skills.”

Sahlberg says that there are, however, a number of one-on-one private tutors who are pedagogically very skilled and can help children overcome the issues that have impeded their progress at school.

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Catherine, who has been tutoring kids one-on-one for over a decade, believes she is one of those tutors. She argues that the problem isn’t tutoring, but a deficiency in the classroom setting which fails to recognise the uniqueness of each student’s approach to learning.

“Tutoring centres are almost like a repeat of the classroom setting, which is the problem many kids face,” she explains. “Students don’t need another distanced smart person who doesn’t understand their personal, individual style of learning and being. I’m sensitive to my students’ personal lives as much as I am to their school performance because kids aren’t one-dimensional beings who focus on school with nothing else in their lives. Tutors have a way of making subjects relevant to the student because we make the subject about our subject, the student.”

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Mohan Dhall, the CEO of the Australian Tutoring Association, says that good tutors can go a long way in remediating learning loss – which he “absolutely emphatically” believes has occurred – provided they are held accountable for what they do.

“Private tutoring does not work if it simply mirrors mainstream education, focuses on outcomes and is non-accountable,” he says. “Parents should ask tutors: What are your evidenced-based strategies to improve my child’s learning? What professional training have you had in education to understand what my child’s needs are and how they can best be catered for?”

Dhall expresses concerns that tutoring companies, some of which are listed on the ASX, emphasise financial returns rather than student gains and educational benefits. The fact that the industry is largely unregulated (cash-in-hand payments for tutors mean it is hard to confirm its prevalence) only adds to this concern.

‘A big inequity issue’

Another issue is equity, he says, because the cost of tutoring excludes most already-disadvantaged students.

“Private tutoring can absolutely and unequivocally further entrench learning inequalities,” Dhall says. “I worked at a private school where I also ran a tutoring centre, and some students were coming to tutoring for all six of their HSC or IB [International Baccalaureate] subjects. So, in addition to parents paying private school fees, they were also paying tutoring on top of that, meaning those students do not just have the most enriched education that money can buy, but tutoring too.”

The consequences of this uptake could reverberate throughout the classroom, according to Misty Adoniou, an adjunct professor of education at the University of Canberra. She says that a reliance on tutoring as a fallback could mean that teachers would eventually shift their own classroom approach, further alienating the already-marginalised, who not only don’t have the means to partake in tutoring, but who may already suffer due to a lack of access to technology, or equipment, or to someone at home who can help them.

“We really run the risk of us relying on what happens after school to determine what happens in school,” she says. “It’s not a good road to be going down, the whole tutoring market. The more uptake we have of it, the more that [it could inform] teachers’ understanding of their work. So, we cater to the people doing private tutoring instead of the kids who are not.”

Sahlberg says that Australians spend a disproportionate amount of money on education compared to other OECD countries. In Sydney, he says, around 30% of students participate in tutoring, but rates can be higher in some suburbs.

“Private tutoring, because it is more accessible to those who can pay for it, is a big inequity issue,” he says. “According to international organisations like the OECD, inequity is one of Australia’s biggest educational challenges. Prevalent private tutoring does not help to make our education more equal, or in other words, to give all our children a fair go.”

Fiona says there’s a “huge class issue” at the heart of Australian schooling, and that one of her primary reasons for seeking coaching is to remedy it for her own child, who she fears might be at a disadvantage because he is getting a public education rather than a private or independent one.

But Adoniou stresses that there’s “nothing insufficient about the quality of education we have in Australia”, and says that parents should consider their child’s mental health before seeking tutoring for them.

“Some tutoring services run a different curriculum, so students are spending all this time working at school, and then doing a whole program during after-school hours,” she explains. “I don’t see why in a country like Australia why we need a parallel education system.”

With state governments now allocating funding to in-class tutors, Adoniou urges educators to “think really carefully” about how they use funds, advocating for tutors to be used for the mainstream student who don’t need help, freeing up qualified classroom teachers to support the kids trailing behind.

“We shouldn’t use untrained tutors, who are often undergraduates doing prac or learning support assistants, for our most needy kids,” she says. “The system should be flipped on its head, where the teacher does all the planning, and where the untrained tutor helps the rest of the class while the trained teacher helps those who are falling behind.”

Sahlberg says that funding for remedial support and individual help should have been part of our system well before the pandemic began, and says that now is the time to be investing in preventative tutoring in all schools, “so that the wide achievement gap that existed long before the pandemic could be narrowed”.

He also recommends schools pay more attention to outdoor play and physical activity, or activities like music or art, to make learning more holistic for students, and urges parents considering coaching to see their child “as a whole person with multiple abilities and interests”.

“Statistics show that schooling is a big factor behind issues with [youth] mental health and happiness,” Sahlberg explains. “In times like this, adults should remove elements in children’s lives that may cause additional anxiety, toxic stress, or depression. Additional tutoring is one of those elements.

“Help your child find what [they’re] really interested in and curious about,” he says. “Being good in school subjects is important but finding your true passion positively affects [performance] in school overall.”

*Name changed for privacy



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