SIINA KARBIN, a Finn living in Vienna, had never imagined paying someone to tutor her children. But then in early 2020 Austria’s schools closed because of covid-19. She and her husband struggled to help their seven-year-old son learn remotely while also doing their own jobs. Ms Karbin signed the boy up for one-to-one online tutoring provided by GoStudent, an Austrian startup, assuming he would do it for a few months. A year and a half later her son is back in school, and also still enjoying a weekly session with his tutor. He tells his mum he is keen to carry on with it.
As a new school year gets under way in many countries, the harm caused by the months of closures is becoming ever clearer. In America primary-age pupils are on average five months behind where they would usually be in maths, and four months in reading, according to McKinsey, a consultancy. The damage is almost certainly worse in places such as India and Mexico, where the disruption to schooling has been greater. Even before the pandemic parents around the world were growing more willing to pay for extra lessons in the hope of boosting their children’s education. The crisis will accelerate that trend.
The after-hours industry, sometimes dubbed “shadow education”, encompasses packed cram schools, one-to-one tutoring and paid online courses. Its providers range from moonlighting teachers to multinational firms. Business is biggest in East Asia: some 80% of South Korea’s primary-school children get extra lessons and 90% of Japanese children get private help at some point. Yet there are other hotspots. In Greece most school-leavers say they have taken private classes. In Egypt about one-third of children in the first years of school get extra lessons, rising to over four-fifths by the time they leave secondary school.
Before the pandemic the industry had been expanding in rich and poor countries. In England and Wales the share of 11- to 16-year-olds who say they have ever received private tuition increased from 18% in 2005 to 27% in 2019 (in London it was 41%). The share of German school-leavers who say something similar rose from 27% in the early 2000s to over 40% by 2013. In South Africa 29% of 11- and 12-year-olds were receiving coaching in 2013, up from just 4% six years earlier. Tutoring was once “virtually unknown” in Scandinavia, says Soren Christensen of Aarhus University, but even there a small industry has now sprung up.
There are several explanations. Globally more children are enrolled in school than ever before, notes Mark Bray, an authority on shadow education at the University of Hong Kong. Between 2000 and 2018 the number receiving no education at all fell by about a third. That means competition to be top of the class is fiercer. In poor countries, in particular, parents worry that the quality of schooling has deteriorated as rolls have grown. Paying for top-up teaching is one way to compensate.
More youngsters are completing 12 years of schooling. Competition for spots in leading universities has grown more intense. The demise of old-fashioned jobs-for-life has made parents keener to ensure their children get the best start possible.
Underlying this shift are demographic changes. The global fertility rate has fallen by half since the 1950s. Having smaller families allows parents to spend more on each child’s education. More families have two parents in paid work. In America that is true of around half of all two-parent households, up from less than one-third in 1970. Such couples have less time to help with homework, and more need for child care. After-hours services that promise to educate children hold much appeal.
At first the pandemic brought the industry’s rise to a sharp halt. Governments forced cram schools to close along with formal ones. The owner of a big tutoring firm in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, says business is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, in part because the crisis has caused many of his customers to economise. Felix Ohswald of GoStudent says that at the start of the pandemic families were so “overwhelmed” that fewer than usual sought out extra classes. Some places cancelled big exams. American universities allowed applicants to skip standardised tests. The axing of exams, naturally, was bad for firms that teach kids how to excel in them.
Yet as schools return to something resembling normality parents’ appetite for tutoring seems to be sharpening. Those already anxious about their offspring’s prospects now worry even more. Sangita Halder, a domestic worker in Delhi, says she is spending three times as much on tutoring for her 14-year-old son as she did before the pandemic, though her family’s income has halved. Without this, she says he would have learned nothing since his school shut last year. Erica Upshur of Mathnasium, an American firm whose franchisees run around 1,000 after-school learning centres in a dozen countries, says new enrolments fell during the worst of the crisis but were above average this summer. She thinks this autumn they could be higher than ever.
At a tutoring centre in Norwich in eastern England that offers courses designed by Kumon, a big Japanese education firm, children perch on dinky plastic chairs and scribble in little workbooks. Clement Tala, a charity worker, says disruptions to pre-school were one reason he began taking his son, now four, to see Kumon’s tutors once a week (the boy gets homework to do on the other six days). Jummy Udonjo, a mental-health nurse, is happy to pay £200-odd ($270) a month for her five- and seven-year-old daughters to take courses in maths and English. When covid-19 closed England’s schools, some days Kumon’s worksheets were all her children had.
Meanwhile, job losses and lifestyle changes provoked by the pandemic have swollen the ranks of those tempted to work as tutors. GoStudent’s Mr Ohswald says that during lockdowns the number of people signing up to provide tutoring through his platform rocketed. Teachers in many poorer countries began offering private tutoring sessions while schools were closed (remote learning was often non-existent and social-distancing rules only weakly enforced). They may keep up their lucrative side gigs even as their day jobs restart.
Many children in poor countries attend cheap private schools, some of which have gone bust during lockdowns. In India about half of all children attend private institutions; a recent survey suggests that over a quarter of them may have moved to government ones since the start of the pandemic. Zahid Ali Mughal, the head of a private school in Karachi in Pakistan, says the number of children enrolled in his school has fallen by two-thirds. Teachers who lose their jobs as a result of such shifts may have to rely on tutoring to make cash.
And governments in countries such as Britain and Australia are paying providers of private tutoring to participate in educational “catch-up” schemes. This public money, though temporary, will help private providers expand. The pandemic has also encouraged the industry to invest more in online products, and made parents and children more comfortable using them. The growth of a variety of online educational services ought to make tutoring cheaper and more widely available.
A boom in private tuition could undo some of the damage inflicted by the pandemic. A recent study in England found that before the pandemic children who used Kumon’s after-school maths programme were about seven months ahead of peers from similar backgrounds by the age of 11. Other research shows that poor children who attend high-quality test-preparation classes benefit more than richer pupils, says Steve Entrich of the University of Potsdam. That suggests that after-hours classes can be “a tool to bridge the learning gap” between richer and poorer kids, he says. That gap has been exacerbated by covid-19.
In practice, private tutoring can have pernicious effects. In many countries, especially poorer ones, much is provided by government teachers. Some put more energy into side work than their day jobs. Corrupt ones compel pupils to pay for extra lessons by leaving important material out of regular class-time, or simply by hinting that they will give lower marks to children whose families do not cough up. Opportunities to profit from private tutoring make it harder to persuade teachers to work in remote villages, where families can least afford extra classes, notes Mr Bray.
Top-up schooling will often widen inequality. In England and Wales the Sutton Trust, a charity, found that 34% of the richest parents (calculated on the basis of questions about things like car and computer ownership, holidays and the number of bathrooms in their homes) had ever paid for extra classes, compared with 20% of the poorest ones. Around the world, less affluent families tend to use shoddier providers. Bad tuition can be harmful if it leaves kids tired, stressed or complacent. One study in India found that children who received private tutoring were more likely to miss school and that their marks were the same or worse than those of their peers.
The greatest difficulties arise when supplementary schooling is so widespread that it starts to be considered the norm. Rather than support struggling students, some teachers in China are now more likely to suggest that they seek help from private tutors, says Wei Zhang of East China Normal University in Shanghai. She says some top schools require pupils to learn part of the curriculum before term starts, which for many parents means hiring private tutors. That can make schools look more effective than they really are. Schools face pressure to move faster than usual from parents whose children do a lot of extra classes. That puts classmates who cannot afford them at a disadvantage.
After-school educators are often quicker to try out novel curriculums, teaching styles or technology than hidebound government schools. Their experiments help useful innovations find their way into formal school systems. But they can also mount resistance to reform—such as improvements to exams—that firms worry could reduce demand for their services. Large such sectors may frustrate policies far beyond education. China’s Communist Party is convinced that the high costs of after-hours schooling are part of the reason Chinese families are having fewer children than authorities would like them to.
In July China’s government banned tutoring during weekends and holidays and forbade providers from making a profit. But with demand growing, policymakers elsewhere have been seeking to make access to extra tuition fairer, rather than try to stamp it out. Efforts in Japan and South Korea have included creating public alternatives to private cram schools, and experimenting with voucher schemes that aim to stop the poorest children from being locked out. “It is very difficult for governments to roll back shadow education once it has become entrenched,” argues Mr Christensen of Aarhus University. “We have to work out how to maximise the best aspects of it, and marginalise the worst.” ■
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An early version of this article was published online on October 3rd 2021
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Smart buys”