Murray Morrison argues it’s possible to improve education for all with technology and more manageable teacher workloads
The British education system is, on one hand, the envy of the world. Speakers at the latest global summit for education technology espoused the view that international educators look to the UK for inspiration, and 35,000 people flooded London’s Bett education trade show to discover ideas and products that will revolutionise teaching and learning.
On the other hand, our education system is in crisis. Any teacher will tell you the system is in meltdown: budgets are strained, teachers are suffering from unmanageable workload and recruitment is in freefall.
A system under pressure
Teachers and school leaders are under increasing pressure to show results through accountability measures, and stress has inevitably trickled down to students. The good intentions might have been to raise standards in schools, but they have resulted in a looming mental health epidemic among vulnerable teenagers and a collapse of the teaching profession. As the system is squeezed until the pips squeak, those with least access to support lose out most – and there’s an unavoidable impact on social mobility and our economy.
The discrepancy between our image as ‘education nation’ and an education system in decline isn’t too hard to explain: all the buzz comes from the top. We have excellent universities producing brilliant graduates that drive forward science, arts and innovation. We have wonderful schools supplying students for these universities. But these ‘headliners’ are a tiny proportion of the country.
Some may assume it’s the quality of teaching that makes the future doctor. But I have found, working with hundreds of schools, that it’s the individualised support students receive outside class that differentiates our children’s futures.
Growth of private tuition
When hamstrung teachers have little time to give their pupils individual attention, those few more fortunate students can gain a huge advantage over their peers. The most obvious route to this advantage is through private tuition.
A ‘sideline job’ that barely existed in 2000, private tuition is now worth almost £2 billion: 25% of students may have ‘some tuition’ at ‘some point’. When you dig into the figures, however, it becomes clearer what’s going on in this opaque and unregulated industry. The figure in major urban centres rises to 42%; at independent schools it’s more like 80% and, in London, approaching 95% of independent school students have regular weekly tuition. There are around 500 agencies in London offering tuition at rates from £50 to over £100 per hour. The oft-quoted line by parents is ‘Well, we didn’t want to, but everyone else in the class has a tutor so we had no option.’
If the most affluent and well-situated 5% of the population are receiving most of the tuition, it puts them at an enormous advantage. A student with a tutor will generally have a better academic record, better grades and a more positive view of study. Students at independent schools (having far more tuition than their counterparts) represent 7% of the population at secondary level but 14% in further education. At Russell Group universities, their proportion rises further to 20%; at Oxford and Cambridge, it’s over 40%.
Students who use tutors don’t always benefit: students tutored to perform often become dependent on that support to sustain them in their academically elevated position. They become stressed and the tuition becomes a crutch. But it’s lucrative for the agency, which makes at least £20 in hourly commission, several times a week, for years afterwards.
Support for all?
However, if tuition does prepare students more thoroughly for the all-important exams, if it builds discipline, confidence, aspiration and a love of learning, then think of the converse for the majority without tuition: lower aspirations, lower achievements, less discipline to study effectively and wasted opportunities.
When attending a top university becomes a shibboleth that opens doors to the best careers, the shame is that a wealth of talented people are missing out (and our universities are missing out on them) because they didn’t have the necessary support. Meanwhile, many less able or less educationally jaded individuals are getting through. This disconnect should worry us all.
Technology provides some solutions: by democratising and vastly reducing the cost of support through adaptive, personalised learning programmes and online tuition access, many more students can achieve better grades and open up opportunities. My own company’s software, Tassomai, engages students in practising content and provides feedback to teachers about who needs help and where. This alone can halve teacher marking time and enable teachers to use targeted intervention. But technology cannot be the whole story.
Teacher workload, and a national lack of respect for what teaching really is (or should be) is a threat to our future prosperity and job satisfaction. Education technology is trying to tackle one tiny part of this problem, but we need to make cultural changes in teaching in this country. We should be paying teachers to teach, not to collect and process data.
Teachers and schools, liberated from mundane tasks, will be better able to support their students to learn independent study skills, motivation and aspiration, and to inspire them to fight against an inequitable system.
The fee for this article was donated to The Access Project, a charity that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds win places at top universities by providing them with a volunteer tutor and mentor support.