Around the world, private, after-school tutoring has become part of a widely adopted and accepted method of enhancing student academic performance. While the reasons may differ for students – and parents – to subscribe to tutoring, the goal is the same: to invest in the best educational outcome to get ahead. But is economic investment the only type of investment we should be looking at?
The economic implications and impact of private tutoring, by whatever name it might be called, including “shadow education” or “coaching” are well known. Whether delivered before or after school, beyond the school gates, in person or online, private tutoring has become a big business.
In a report1 published in January this year, it was estimated that the global private tutoring market would reach over US$ 290 billion by 2030, with an annual compound growth rate of around 5.1 per cent in Japan, 6.8 per cent in Canada and 8.4 per cent in Germany. India’s current market revenue for private after-school tutoring, meanwhile, is expected to reach over US$ 16 billion within five years, in 2028,2 while online tutoring services were estimated to grow by more than US$10.5 million between 2022 and 2027, at a growth rate of 17 per cent.3 Similar developments were predicated in China, according to a 2020 report by management consulting firm Oliver Wyman,4 which estimated growth from around US$123.7 billion in 2019 to US$0.15 trillion by 2025. Comparable trends have been found in other geographical markets, including in other Asian countries, Europe, North America and on the African continent.
The common factor amidst these figures is the extent to which parents in particular are willing to invest in their children’s education which is seen as a crucial stepping stone for future development and success. Therefore, to make sure that their children might not lose out in any form of competition – be it entry to a specific school, including kindergarten or university, staying afloat with classwork, excelling at exams, or just succumbing to the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ syndrome – parents are willing to use whatever resources they can afford to invest in education, and if necessary, do that through private tutoring.
The global private tutoring market is estimated to reach over US$290 billion by 2030.
But what about investment beyond the monetary? Private tutoring also requires an investment in time, which then has consequences to ensure that well-being is safeguarded. What follows is not a judgment or criticism of tutoring per se; instead, it attempts to put the “cost” of private tutoring into a wider context, which might be factors to reflect upon when considering the investment required for shadow education.
Private tutoring is generally understood to go beyond normal school hours. This means that a child who goes to school has either attended, or needs to attend, another class (or classes) online, individually or in groups to repeat the classwork to consolidate learning; get further explanations to understand what is being taught; or acquire additional learning to keep one step ahead of the curve.
A student in Hong Kong can average a weekly study time of about 50 hours for a five-day week; whereas adults work an average of 44 hours a week.
All this learning takes up time. As a former Minister of Education in Mauritius once observed, “children spend an average of nine hours a day in regular [school] and additional tutoring, while adults have a seven-hour standard working day.”5
A similar observation was made by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in a 2018 report. It stated that the average study time for a student in primary to secondary education, accounting for class time, homework and after-school tutoring averaged to “about ten hours on a school day”, or 50 hours for a five-day week. This could rise substantially if including weekends.6 With only anecdotal confirmation, it is believed that these figures have increased in the last five years, standing in stark contrast to the majority of Hong Kong people surveyed in a 2022 poll saying that they worked on average 44 hours a week.7
The troubling fact about the number of hours spent in private tutoring, is that it does not include other extra-curricular activities a child might be involved in, particularly, sports, music and art.
In July 2021, Mainland Chinese policy makers introduced sweeping reforms to the after-school tutoring industry, effectively banning for-profit companies offering tuition services on school curriculum subjects during the weekend, on holidays or after 9:00 p.m. on weekdays. Tutoring would only be allowed on the weekend and within a limited number of hours. The purpose, according to the State Council statement, was to reduce the burden on students from homework, while also easing the financial pressures on families. This was described as the “double reduction.”8
This change, while upsetting some parents who believed that their children would fall behind as a result of less tutoring, was seen as something positive by the young protagonists themselves.
As one nine-year-old clearly stated, “[My extra] English class used to take three hours. Now I can spend time with my friends and family instead. I am so happy that I can go to amusement parks more often!”9
If the time spent in after-school tutoring raise concerns, what are the implications for overall well-being?
A 2020 study10 in Korea noted that there was a causational link between emotional distress and tutoring, which resulted in a disturbed night’s sleep. The authors suggested that policy makers stress age-appropriate sleep durations, while also looking for balanced strategies “between … the effect of private education on academic achievement and the need to guarantee physical and mental health in adolescent students.”
In a Hong Kong study, students talked about the pressure they felt when tutoring did not match their own or, more importantly, their parents’ expectations. The worry to not upset those around them played upon their mental health. Also quoted in this study, a Sri Lankan scholar noted that “The age-appropriate developmental tasks such as building wholesome attitudes towards oneself, learning to get along with peers, developing conscience, morality and a scale of values [stood] a very poor chance …”11 as a result of private tutoring.
The caution then is that without time for leisure activities or just “free time”, and if children are too exhausted at the end of the day, they are missing out on opportunities to explore their own interests, learn how to release tension, forge healthy social relationships or even build resilience.
Achieving academic excellence, with or without the investment into tutoring, has been the focus of a lot of research and study. The amount of pressure to succeed, along with the concomitant issues of fatigue, stress and imbalances in wellbeing that some students feel by having to attend extra tutoring, should not be dismissed out of hand.
After-school tutoring is a complex subject, supported by many people for many reasons. Whatever the motive to send a student for tutoring, it really is imperative for parents, along with educators and perhaps even policy makers, to consider the total investment into this phenomenon, not just financially, sometimes beyond the resource capabilities of parents themselves.
Student wellbeing must be safeguarded within the entire educational framework, irrespective of the acquisition or reasons for tutoring. At the end of the day, academic results will not be worth more than balanced mental, emotional, psychological and physical health. And surely that is where the investment into our children’s future should be.