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Wednesday 19th June 2013


Tuition has become a massive growth industry in the UK, with the Daily Telegraph reporting that up to 25% of all households have used a private tutor in the past year. And, as with all enterprises that grow rapidly and in an un-coordinated fashion, there have been calls for the business to be ‘regulated’.

The recent initiative by the Campaign for the Market Reform of Education (CMRE) is a case in point. In an effort to stave off unwanted government regulation of private tuition in favour of ‘self regulation’ several of the larger tuition agencies have funded the CMRE to create The Tutors’ Association (TTA). The launch of TTA is proposed sometime in the next academic year (2013/14). Its principal thrust is that members should have certain minimum academic standards and adhere to certain ethical minima before becoming accredited TTA members, able to put the TTA logo on their advertising media and so forth.

Before discussing regulation of ‘tutors’ perhaps it would be a good idea to find out who these people are and how they go about their business.

As discussed in an earlier blog, professional online one-to-one tutors with their own websites based in the UK (such as myself) seem to be rare beasts. A rapid Google search under ‘online [subject] tutor’ and going only as far as page 10 of the results has revealed there to be the grand total of three biology tutors; two physics tutors; two physics and maths tutors; two chemistry tutors and four maths tutors. However, a quick search through any of the online sites that advertise tuition (such as The Tutor Pages, First Tutors, UK Tutors and the like) or that act as agencies (such as The Tutor Hub, Fleet Tutors and the like) reveal vast numbers of tutors who profess to work online.

The big split in tuition does appear to be between those who ‘go it alone’ (often just as a short ‘fill-in’ job or while a student) and those who work through an agency or tutorial college. Both ways of being a ‘tutor’ have their pros and cons – working through an agency or college means that the agency pays advertising costs as a minimum and may be able to ‘guarantee’ a certain number of hours of work. The better ones may also offer fringe benefits such as tutor training and support and paying for CRB/DBS checks. On the other hand the agency or college takes a healthy slice of the fees (although, as the former director and shareholder of a private college myself I can tell you that the profit margins are by no means huge once massive taxes and expenses are deducted in the UK! A mere 20% is a not-uncommon nett profit margin).

‘Going it alone’ means that all the profits are yours but it also means that you are responsible for getting the clients – and advertising can be very expensive and quite unproductive, especially when you are starting out. You are also somewhat ‘out on a limb’ psychologically as you don’t generally have other tutors off whom to bounce ideas – although the web is changing that very rapidly.

The other big split appears to be between the ‘career tutors’ such as myself for whom it is the principal or only occupation, and the ‘in-and-outers’ who do a bit of tutoring while studying or as a ‘fill-in’ between jobs.

So it’s quite a broad church that any wannabe ‘regulator’ has to deal with!

It makes a degree of sense, in business terms, for tutorial agencies and/or colleges to push for a degree of regulation, and preferably one that is self-regulation rather than imposed by central government. It is very tempting to be able to offer some sort of ‘kitemark’ of approval to dangle in front of potential students and parents to reassure them that your tutors are: a) ‘qualified’ and b) ‘safe’. Several such organisations (such as CIFE) have existed for years that cater to the Tutorial Colleges. However, on the whole, Tutorial Agencies (that merely recommend home tutors to potential clients for a fee from the client) are still largely ‘unregulated’ other than by the general laws of the land. And independent tutors such as myself are currently in the same boat. It may seem to be to the benefit of all concerned – tutors, agencies, parents and students - that such a ‘kitemark’ exists. But is it? Let’s look at the arguments in favour and against…

The ‘Regulators’ argue that in a free-for-all such as we have now there is the risk that parents and students will be ripped-off by poor tutors, who are often unqualified in their subject. They feel that by having a central system of verification of qualifications the parents of potential students will be reassured that their tutor is up to the job.

The ‘Regulators’ also feel that in an unregulated market there is a greater risk of paedophiles having access to young people. Again, if any tutorial agency within the ‘kitemark’ scheme were to operate a central check of all CRB/DBS disclosures as part of their tutor registration then parents could be assured that this hurdle had been cleared without having to check for themselves.

The ‘Regulators’ furthermore have an overall ethos that is edging towards the concept of a ‘trained, certified tutor’. In which case the questions become: 1) who issues the ‘certification of training’ and 2) to what (and whose) standard are the tutors ‘certified’.

The issue only became a burning one under a decade ago when a government initiative proposed that all under-performing school students should be given extra individual tuition. The question then became “where do we get the tutors?” An early initiative to use trained teachers as these tutors was a massive failure as most ‘trained teachers’ teachers do not understand the different technique involved in tutoring. A Price Waterhouse Cooper report of the time commissioned two educationalists to investigate the problem. The latter concluded that the only acceptable system of quality control that would work in state schools would be to have a central form of ‘Tutor Training and Certification’. In other words, ‘Teacher Training’ but under the aegis of a different ‘Tutor’ stream.

It should be noted in passing that similar conclusions had been reached in many of the United States a great deal earlier. Cadres of ‘trained tutors’ have been deployed into public schools in the USA, at vast expense to the hard-pressed taxpayer, very little gain to students and considerable profits to the Tutorial Companies involved. To many in the UK this has sounded a rather loud alarm bell regarding the potential motives of British Tutorial Agencies in seeking some form of ‘Tutor Accreditation’. These alarm bells may, of course, be unjustified - but the people sounding them can hardly be blamed for doing so given the American experience.

On the other hand the reaction of large numbers of tutors (including myself) to the idea of tutor regulation/accreditation/training has been somewhat luke-warm, to put it mildly.

The detractors of ‘Tutor Regulation’ point out that we already have a large body of ‘trained’ educators who have jumped through an extensive series of hoops to do what they so, and yet STILL there is a sufficiently large number of them who are useless as to have spawned a massive private industry that ‘picks up the pieces’.

Furthermore it is virtually impossible (thanks to the malign power of the teaching unions) to fire an incompetent teacher, whereas a tutor such as myself is instantly responsive to the market – if I don’t cut the mustard with the teaching I am out of a job instantly, with no index-linked pension, severance payment or right of appeal. I can’t help feeling (forgive me) that if such a sword of Damocles were to hang over some of Britain’s many complacent and incompetent teachers then we would see a pretty sharp improvement in standards in schools!

It has also been pointed-out that many tutors (though not myself) are extremely effective and popular even though they have no ‘formal’ qualifications in the subject that they teach. Such people would be thrown on the scrapheap by a ‘one size fits all’ certification process. This is certainly a valid and very worrying point – in pursuit of setting a minimum standard (and adhering rigorously to it) the ‘Regulators’ might well actively cut down some of the brightest and best who are currently many students’ only salvation. A spectacular own-goal of the kind with which modern Britons will be all-too-familiar.

My personal logic (and perhaps yours?) suggests that rather than trying to break a system that is truly responsive to its market and – on the whole – does an excellent job, the ‘Regulators’ would be better placed to try to tighten-up standards in the system that is truly broken, ie our state education system. It is furthermore rather insulting of the ‘Regulators’ to assume that parents – when dealing with their greatest and most valuable asset – cannot exercise sufficient nous of their own when selecting a tutor. These same parents, it may be noted, have precisely zero influence in the selection and retention of those whose salaries and index-linked pensions their extortionate taxes pay.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” seems a pretty good maxim by which to lead your life. The private tuition system in this country is robust and responds to its market pretty well – seeking to destroy it by unnecessary regulation while neglecting the fundamental cause for its existence reeks of curing the symptom and not the disease. I spend a lot of my time giving the kiss of life to the otherwise moribund education system and I’d like to be left to get on with it in my own way unfettered by yet more pointless regulation.

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