The Ethics of Tutoring

The last few posts have been short but practical – lots of links and resources. So for a change this evening’s will be short and philosophical, prompted by several Guardian articles that caught my attention. The first didn’t seem sure about whether there was a real need, or just a perceived one. The second was a series of personal viewpoints, from tutors, parents and the tutees.

I know of several students in each of my classes who have tutors; I’m sure there are more who haven’t mentioned it. There are no doubt a range of reasons and a range of benefits, but I can’t help wondering if the parents are necessarily doing the right thing.

In some cases – hopefully none of mine! – parents are trying to make up for a perceived inadequacy in the classroom. This could due to a teacher, concern about numbers or a child who is being missed. In others, a child is being tutored to try and boost them above an important threshold. The focus in schools is often seen as being about the C/D borderline, so parents may feel that if their child is being neglected then extra time is worthwhile. Parents who are hoping for a particlar school place, scholarships or an 11+ exam would fit into this category.

For many, I suspect the real value – whether this is made explicit to the student or not – is that they have a structured time to work, with guidance. And by this, I mean to make sure the kid does some work, at some point. Many teens struggle to focus when there are so many distractions. Knowing that on Wednesday evenings between 5 and 6 they will have to ask and answer questions on an identified weak area probably helps concentrate the mind. And when the sessions are one-to-one, there’s the chance for personalised revision tips, extra examples or quick tests. This might particularly apply to students who are easily distracted in school, for whatever reason.

Of course, in some cases tutoring is a waste of time. I’ve had students who have been taught material at home that’s wrong, or pitched at too high a level. I had one kid who had been taught all the topics in advance, jumped in with all the answers during discussions yet hadn’t practised the things they needed help with. Other times, pupils have clearly rehearsed the general ideas but not applied them in any kind of a useful way. And to be honest, it’s frustrating to have homework handed in which is clearly above the ability of the student. This wastes my time as well as theirs, seeing as when it comes to the test the scores tend to be a better reflection.

The real problem

I don’t want my kids to need a tutor. They already pay for one – me. I promise my students at the start of the year that I’ll always be around if they need support. They write down where to find me at break and lunch. As long as they don’t mind me eating a sandwich or drinking coffee while I talk, I’ll help them whenever I can. I’ve not often turned kids away – but they’ve not often come asking either. So whose fault is it if pupils don’t ask me for help and their parents end up paying someone else instead?


The thing is, I’ve tutored before and probably will again. I don’t advertise, I’m not with an agency and I don’t tout for business. Obviously I don’t tutor children from my school, unless you count lunchtime revision sessions put on by the department. So does this make me a hypocrite? I guess it does. The truth is that any child will benefit in some way from having an extra session a week on a subject. It might be about confidence, it might be a concept they struggle with, it might just help them organise their revision. But there will be something. Personally – and I’ve said this to parents of pupils and tutees – I think that it’s not very cost-effective. But I suspect many parents would either feel they wouldn’t be confident with the content or value a neutral adult who can support a struggling teenager. I’ve never been asked to provide inappropriate support with coursework and I’ve never done a kid’s homework for them; at most I’ve given similar examples and worked though some equivalent problems with them. My conscience is clear. But I’m still a little uneasy.

An Alternative

This is basically why I’ve been putting together – slowly, painfully and missing every deadline I’ve set myself – a secondary blog. It’s and it uses some of the same ideas I promote in class. It’s not science-specific, so the ideas can be applied in any subject. It’s careful not to blame teachers or pupils for difficulties. It doesn’t suggest there’s a quick fix – in fact, I should add a version of this post to make clear tutoring is not a simple solution. Instead it provides resources, ideas and suggestions to make it easier to succeed in schools.

I’d value any suggestions about it, as well as comments on the ethics of tutoring itself. Do you tutor, or do you hate the idea? How do you feel when you find one of your students pays for a personal replacement for your help? Am I being overly-sensitive?

Answers on a postcard…

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Tutoring”

  1. I do loads of private tutoring – mostly for students who have re take exams coming up and need the extra boost – a couple of kids who need it, yes, because of an issue with the teaching (I am shocked at what goes on in a couple of other departments), some who just need the extra confidence and one who clearly hasn’t done a scrap of work all year and probably won’t do so before the exam.

    I used to hate it when my students had a tutor, especially the ones who had been “taught it all” already – as you mentioned above (and I am careful never to do that with my tutees unless there is a danger they won’t finish the course in good time to revise) but now that I tutor myself I understand how to use them and regularly send my students home with lists of things for their tutors to go through – as much as I would like to dedicate an hour of my time to each of the 150 exam class students I teach there just aren’t enough hours in the school week.

    Sorry for the long comment – it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about!

  2. Sometimes a student won’t ‘fess up to a misconception (or even realise they’ve got one) till they are one to one with someone. And school is full of mates and stuff to do that does not include seeing your teacher for a bit of extra help – but if a tutor’s shown up for a session, well, you can’t really avoid thinking about the problem any more, can you? Not everything goes in first time round; sometimes another teacher says things in a way that switches on a light; sometimes there are not enough hours in the day to see all the students who DO want extra help; sometimes, it really is just about confidence boosting. All reasons for judicious use of tutors, and judicious being a tutor oneself. The golden rule being – don’t diss the class teacher (whatever your tutee tells you!)

    1. Thanks to you Sue and Alex; it’s interesting to see the range or reasons students might need – or feel they need – help. And a really good point about beng supportive externally (even if dubious internally) about how the class teacher is working.

      Providing a list of things to cover is an interesting approach, and one I haven’t tried. Not explicitly, anyway, although i hope the kids have raised the issues we’ve identified in class, either verbally or as written feedback.

      Cheers again for taking the time to comment!

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