Tutoring: What lurks in the shadowy education sector

By Mohan Dhall

Very early in my teaching career, about 1996, I was asked to tutor a student whose parents had migrated from Russia. At the end of our two-hour tutoring session, she burst into tears. 

I thought I must have done a very poor job and inquired. The student explained she’d learned more in that two-hour session than in a year and half of tutoring with other providers.  She said her parents had been academics in Russia. Now her father worked in a factory and her mother as a seamstress to pay for her tuition. Her tears were her shame for wasting her parents’ money in the past. 

This experience made me angry and sparked a desire to understand the private tutoring sector and its impact on vulnerable students and families who vest trust in tutors and tutoring businesses. 

Part of a movement to privatise education

Globally, the private tutoring market is estimated to be worth about US$62bn (just under AUD$100bn) and an estimated compounded annual growth rate of just under 10% for the next 8 years. Its impact and effect on mainstream education is a growing problem for national governments. Its growth has been characterised as part of a movement to privatise education

My private informal research conducted over the next four years revealed a number of problems  within what has been called the shadow education sector. The issues I uncovered included no disclosure to parents or students about what was offered, no disclosure about the child protection status (if any) of tutors or the qualifications and experience of tutors. 

Tax avoidance

Most payments were to be made in cash for tax avoidance by tutors. These tutors would not provide any reports or insights about student progress (or lack thereof) meaning parents could never make informed decisions. And many businesses marketed the marks students obtained in particular exams as “evidence” of their success rates.

Today all of these issues remain – and there are additional concerns as well.

In 2002, I approached Standards Australia and asked if they would consider creating a standard for the sector. They convened a working group I was asked to chair. Businesses invited to this working group did all they could to subvert the processes, arguing against the need to articulate what the ‘qualified’ should look like, arguing against standards for child protection and against the need to provide disclosure or reports. 

The working group disbanded after 18 months as it failed to make any progress and a smaller, more cohesive committee formed. In 2006 a Tutoring Code of Practice was released but this was withdrawn in 2017

The Australian Tutoring Association (ATA) was formed in March 2005 while the Standards Australia process was being completed. It was formed shortly after an invitation by Andrew Refshauge, the then NSW Education Minister, requesting commercial tuition providers form a self-regulation peak body. His departmental staff members were as frustrated as me by the self-interest of the private tutoring businesses that subverted the Standards Australia process. I have been CEO of the ATA since 2008.

Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) involvement

Shortly after the formation of the ATA I was approached about a business where the principal tutor, a public high school teacher and her staff, were allegedly writing HSC assessments for students. I referred the informant to the Daily Telegraph who ran multiple stories on this issue. The alleged conduct became the focus of an ICAC investigation which made its findings in Feb 2007. It could not determine whether corrupt conduct had occurred because the HSC assessment rules were too vague

In 2016 the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) referred a matter to Hong Kong’s ICAC regarding a private tutor leaking examination questions on social media. ICAC investigated the issue and held there was a case of Misconduct in Public Office (MIPO). Three people were convicted of various offences in connection with this matter.

It is my belief that despite these instances, in almost every jurisdiction where private tutoring is endemic, there will be the potential for corruption involving public officials working in, or related to tutors working in, the private tutoring sector.  

A role for tutors in mainstream education

I started advocating in 2015 for the use of tutors in schools for the remediation of educational disadvantage. I argue tutors should be specifically trained for the role: in special needs, pedagogy, assessment and feedback. Such a program would need careful design for and sustainable implementation. It should have clearly articulated goals and use evidence-based strategies for supporting students in need. It cannot be reactive as it has been to date. Unlike any model used anywhere globally, I argue the only body capable of undertaking tutoring in schools is a charity set up for that specific purpose. I say this because the public sector investment has not remediated the issue of illiteracy or innumeracy. A charity can be set to private sector levels of accountability and thus be more likely to achieve goals around the alleviation of the issues.

Lastly, I also believe that it is the responsibility of public companies and government to match investment in private tutors in school under this model. It should be in the interest of all responsible businesspeople to support those most unable to access education rather than consign such students to life on social welfare payments.  

The role should not replace teachers

Of concern is that the unfettered growth of private tutoring is impacting classrooms with students often coming to classes well ahead. This can mean school becomes a place where learning is devalued. In my experience of tutoring students from elite private schools and academically selective schools, much of the learning and time in practice is done in private tutoring. This causes a pressure to build on families not taking up private tutoring. More investment in tutoring means the supplementary space grows and becomes more relied upon, further lowering the comparative value of mainstream schooling.

Should tutors be licensed?

National governments vary in their responses to the growth of private tutoring. Some, such as China, have recently adopted a ban – but this may lead to a black market for private tutoring. Some have undertaken various forms of regulation or licensing. Most do nothing. 

But there are reasons for concern. Recently, complaints have come to the ATA about teachers who run large private tutoring enterprises after hours. Parents expect teachers will run such businesses with a high degree of professionalism. This is not always the case. 

A matter referred to the ATA by the NSW Office of Fair Trading concerned a secondary-trained Sydney teacher who was a tutor and business owner. She wrote belittling and aggressive messages to a 10-year-old primary school student. These messages compounded the student’s anxiety. In my capacity as chair of the ATA Code of Conduct Committee, I queried the actions of the teacher. She said students need to learn to cope. The teacher had not heard of the Child Safe Standards in NSW and had no insight at all into the emotional or psychological dimensions of safety. 

Consumers doubly vulnerable

Predictably, she also used her “teaching experience” as a battering ram against accountability. Consumers faced with such tutors are doubly vulnerable because the “teaching experience” is used as a weapon against them. 

Tutoring licences would ensure secondary-trained teachers taking classes with primary students undertake appropriate training. They can also ensure that all tutors understand their obligations with respect to child safety. Tutoring licences could be used to force tutoring businesses to stop using ATAR scores, NAPLAN scores, selective school entry offers or any other government-owned information for marketing or advertising. Licences could ensure all tutors have a working with children check and are local – unlike many profiles on various sites which can also be linked to scams.  

The growth in private tutoring has not been met with commensurate growth in accountability. It continues to grow, and governments continue to ignore it. To me, a practical licensing scheme is required to rein in the worst of the commercial practices and provide greater accountability, disclosure and standards in the sector. 

Mohan Dhall is a  lecturer in education at the University of Technology Sydney and is enrolled in a Doctor of Education at QUT. He is CEO of the Australian Tutoring Association (ATA).

4 thoughts on “Tutoring: What lurks in the shadowy education sector

  1. DH says:

    Many of the issues raised here around tutoring are mirrored in the NDIS system – the level of trust and expectations, high cost of services vs. the reality of the lack of accountability , reporting and use of evidence based strategies.
    Likewise many Educational Support staff ( Integration Aides etc.) employed by schools have no specific training, skills, shared development and understanding of goals; mentoring or supervision. Yet parents trust that their students are getting personalised, professional support.

  2. Standards for private tutors doesn’t seem such a difficult regulatory issue. There is already a form of licencing, in that adults who are tutoring children require a Working with Children Check (WWCC). Rather than an Australian Standard, some form of vocational qualification would seem more appropriate. These already exist for vocational education teachers, and child minding, so there should be enough modules to build most of a tutor certificate.

    In any case, if a teacher becomes aware of illegal acts by a private tutor, such as tax avoidance, or bullying children, they are required to report the matter to police. Failing to report evidence of a serious crime, is a crime.

  3. Mohan says:

    Interesting thoughts Tom. In the case I refer to the bullying was by a teacher working as a tutor. And parent and child were vulnerable to her claims of being an “expert”.

  4. Sheralee says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the need for regulation and governance in the tutoring sector. As a tutor I welcome the work of the ATA in providing guidance and professional learning that supports ethical and child safe practices in this space.
    The challenge is more ensuing that those accessing tutoring know the standards exist so they can make informed decisions about who they engage.

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