It has been one year since schools first closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, there has been a significant upswing in ‘shadow education’ from families seeking educational assistance through private tutoring.
Shadow education is a form of private supplementary tutoring that occurs beyond the hours of mainstream schooling. It is used as an opportunity for enhanced learning, whilst mimicking the regular system’s curriculum. In recent decades, the private tutoring industry has seen a major growth on a global scale.
The UK’s first lockdown spurred a massive increase in demand for shadow education, with some parents paying £1,500 a week for tutors to shoulder the burden of keeping their children on top of lessons.
Affluent parents have also hired expensive tutors to home school their children, with some tutors isolating with families on remote country estates. The rise of ‘Zutors’ (Zoom tutors) and online platforms has provided opportunities for continuous education, and usage has trebled during the coronavirus pandemic. One online classroom platform “BitPaper” had even risen more than sixfold within two weeks, from 5,000 to 32,000 daily users. This surge resulted in a significant boost to Britain’s private tuition sector, which was already worth an estimated £2bn in 2016.
However, with uncontrollable prices varying by the hour, private tutoring comes at a cost. Tutors charge at least £25 per session, which many parents cannot afford. According to the Sutton Trust, 34% of students from ‘high affluence’ households receive shadow education and are more likely to have received such tuition, compared to 20% of students from poorer homes. This disparity gives scope for inequality in the education system. Moreover, this form of shadow education also contradicts Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that education should be free and equally accessible. The issue has been raised with calls to address the situation as not all students are able to meet their true potential due to social and financial disadvantage.
Widening the education gap
Inequality in education was already a concern prior to the coronavirus. Now, with the loss of learning in a classroom setting and the uneven distribution of private tuition, severe disparities in learning and achievement are expected.
The Sutton Trust describes shadow education as a “hidden secret” of British education, but they have previously warned that shadow education’s proliferation risks widening education inequalities. The current surge in private tuition has only magnified the widening education gap. While students from affluent backgrounds are enhancing their learning experience through shadow education, disadvantaged students who often lack devices and internet access to learn remotely also miss out on the opportunity to access private tutoring that enables them to catch up on their learning. If left unaddressed, the gap between these opportunity gaps will transform into wider achievement gaps, which will hit students from disadvantaged backgrounds the most.
National Tutoring Programme
In June 2020, when uncertainty surrounding school closure plans hit its peak, the government turned to the private sector and introduced the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) for England. The programme is worth £350m, and an additional £650m has been given to schools to spend to make up for missed education.
The pot of £650m equates to £91 per pupil according to School’s Week, which does not stretch far. Additionally, the tutoring offered under the NTP is a 75% subsidy in which schools must pay the 25%. Sometimes the remaining cost falls onto parents, who again may be faced with financial barriers.
Although the NTP programme can help to minimise the imbalance in education until life returns to what we consider as ‘normal’, problems with accessibility have not disappeared. Moreover, shadow education during the pandemic has contributed to greater inconsistencies between children, as pupils have returned to the classroom with a range of abilities that depend on their level of opportunity. Eventually some form of public funding should be considered for disadvantaged families else the imbalance and inequality will continue to grow.
The NTP is one of many efforts needed to tackle the widening gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates. Shadow education has been beneficial as it has enabled students to progress academically throughout uncertain times. However, while many students struggle throughout the pandemic, those with the fewest academic and financial opportunities are at greater risk of leaving education with a significant learning loss.
To narrow the education gap and make tuition accessible for all students, additional investment should be considered so that the gap does not increase any further. Whilst every child has the right to free education as a basic human right, more attention needs to be made for disadvantaged groups so that their futures are not affected by lack of opportunity and inequality.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.