Why private tutoring can be a touchy subject

Colin Axup spent most of his teaching career at Melbourne’s select-entry schools and estimates about half of his students had undertaken private tutoring.

Mr Axup, who was principal of Suzanne Cory High School and taught at Melbourne High, said while tutoring had become more common in recent decades, it was not necessarily worth the investment.

“Tutoring is definitely hit and miss,” he said. “I would argue that the teaching they are getting at school is of a quality that they will do well at VCE.”

Henderson executive director Annette Paroissien says the tutoring company has not recovered from the pandemic’s impact.Credit:Justin McManus

Big money was made in tutoring well before Victoria and NSW invested $586 million on small-group tutoring to reduce lost learning caused by COVID-19 school shutdowns.

ASX-listed online tutoring company Cluey – one of the country’s biggest tutoring businesses, alongside Kumon and Kip McGrath – has estimated about 40 per cent of Australian school students used or were considering tutoring services in the near term.

Cluey attributed this to the introduction of NAPLAN, strong demand for low-fee select-entry schools, and a desire to supplement the learning provided by schools.

Mohan Dhall, co-founder of the Australian Tutoring Association, said the country’s tutoring market had been valued at up to $1.5 billion and attracted interest from local and Asian private equity firms.

But he said the market had probably shrunk during COVID-19 as some parents waited for face-to-face lessons to resume and many small operators lost market share to larger operators.

Academic Christina Ho, who is the author of Aspiration and Anxiety – Asian Migrants and Australian Schooling, said tutoring was a touchy topic.

“A lot of people who don’t use tutoring are resentful of families who do because they feel like it’s gaming the system,” she said.

“And because it’s mainly Asian migrants that use it, and generally the non-Asian families are more hesitant, there’s a racialised resentment.”

Academic Christina Ho says Australia needs to have an open conversation about private tutoring. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Dr Ho said tutoring was common in many Asian nations and seen as a legitimate way to develop excellence, similar to intensive sports training.

“But when it comes to academics, that’s seen as tiger parenting, or even child abuse, some people have called it,” she said.

“We need to have an open conversation about why parents feel like they’re not getting enough from schools that makes them go towards private tutoring.”

Most of the students attending Hendersons Educational Services in Melbourne’s east are preparing for the select-entry high school school exam, to be taken by about 4000 students next month.

Executive director Annette Paroissien said Hendersons had not recovered from the impacts of COVID-19. Some customers can no longer afford the service or have not switched to online tutoring during Victoria’s lockdowns.

“A $5000 investment is a significant amount of money to many of our customers, even if it does have the potential to save them $40,000 in school fees a year,” she said.

A Chinese study published in 2018 suggested providing free high-quality tutoring to students from disadvantaged families “might be an effective way of promoting educational equity”.

Peter Adams, honorary principal fellow at the University of Melbourne, said the relationship between socioeconomic status and access to private tutoring raised serious questions about equity.

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