SIINA CARBIN, a Finn living in Vienna, never imagined paying someone to raise her children. But in early 2020, Austrian schools closed due to COVID-19. She and her husband are working hard to help their seven-year-old son study remotely while doing his own job. Ms. Carbin signed the boy up for an online training course provided by Austrian startup GoStudent, believing he would do so in a few months. A year and a half later her son returned to school, and also still enjoys weekly classes with his teacher. He tells his mom he wants to continue this.
As the new school year begins in many countries, the damage caused by months of closure is becoming increasingly apparent. In America, younger students on average lag behind math by five months and four months in reading, according to consulting firm McKinsey. The damage is almost certainly worse in places like India and Mexico, where school disruptions have been greater. Even before the pandemic, parents around the world were more willing to pay for extra lessons in hopes of improving their children’s education. The crisis will accelerate this trend.
The post-employment industry, sometimes referred to as “shadow education,” includes intensive schools, one-on-one training, and paid online courses. Its suppliers range from part-time teachers to multinational firms. The business is the largest in East Asia: about 80% of South Korean primary school children receive extra lessons, and 90% of Japanese children at some point receive private assistance. However, there are other hot spots. In Greece, most school leavers say they have taken private lessons. In Egypt, about one-third of children in the first years of school receive additional lessons, growing to four-fifths by the time they leave high school.
Prior to the pandemic, the industry was expanding in rich and poor countries. In England and Wales, the proportion of teenagers aged 11 to 16 who say they have ever received private education rose from 18% in 2005 to 27% in 2019 (41% in London). The proportion of German school leavers who say something similar has risen from 27% in the early 2000s to more than 40% in 2013. In South Africa, 29% of 11- and 12-year-olds were educated in 2013 against just 4% six years ago. Tutoring was once “virtually unknown” in Scandinavia, says Soren Christensen of Aarhus University, but even there there is now a small industry.
There are several explanations. There are more children in the world than ever before, says Mark Bray, a shadow education expert at the University of Hong Kong. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of people not receiving education fell by about a third. This means that the competition for being the best in the class is tougher. In poor countries, in particular, parents are concerned that the quality of schooling has deteriorated with the growth of the list. One way to compensate is to pay for additional training.
Another young man is finishing his 12th birthday. Competition for places in leading universities has intensified. The rest of the old-fashioned work for life made parents strive to get their children a better start.
At the heart of this shift is demographic change. World birth rates have halved since the 1950s. Having smaller families allows parents to spend more on each child’s education. In more families, two parents are in paid work. In America, this is typical of about half of all two-parent families, compared to less than one-third in the 1970s. Such couples have less time to help with homework, and are more in need of child care. After-school services that promise to educate children are very attractive.
At first, the pandemic abruptly stopped the rise of the industry. Governments were forced to close schools of pressure along with official ones. The owner of a large tutoring firm in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, says the business has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, in part because the crisis has forced many of its customers to save. Felix Oswald of GoStudent says that at the start of the pandemic families were so “overwhelmed” that fewer than usual were looking for extra classes. In some places, major exams have been canceled. American universities have allowed applicants to take standardized tests. Taking exams, naturally, was bad for firms that teach children how they achieved.
However, when schools return to something like normalcy, parents ’appetite for tutoring seems to be heightened. Those who are already concerned about the prospects of their descendants are now even more worried. Sangita Halder, a domestic servant in Delhi, says she spends three times more on tutoring for her 14-year-old son than before the pandemic, although her family’s income has halved. Without it, she says he wouldn’t have learned anything since his school closed last year. Erica Upshur of Mathnasium, an American firm whose franchisees run about 1,000 out-of-school learning centers in a dozen countries, says the number of new educational institutions declined during the worst of the crisis, but was above average this summer. She believes that this fall they may be higher than ever.
At a tutoring center in Norwich in the east of England, which offers courses developed by Kumon, a major Japanese educational firm, children sit in beautiful plastic chairs and draw in small notebooks. Clement Tala, a charity worker, says the failure of preschool was one of the reasons he started taking his four-year-old son to Cumon’s teachers once a week (the boy has to do homework the other six days). Jumie Udonja, a mental health nurse, is happy to pay £ 200 ($ 270) a month for her five- and seven-year-old daughters to attend math and English classes. When Covid-19 closed schools in England, a few days her children had only Cumon letters.
Meanwhile, job losses and lifestyle changes caused by the pandemic have joined the ranks of those tempted to work as teachers. Mr Oswald of GoStudent says that during the blockades the number of people who signed up for training through his platform has increased. Teachers in many poor countries began to offer private tutoring classes while schools were closed (distance learning often did not exist and social distance rules were only poorly enforced). They can continue their lucrative side concerts even if their daily work resumes.
Many children in poor countries attend cheap private schools, some of which fell apart during the blockade. In India, about half of all children attend private institutions; a recent poll suggests that more than a quarter of them may have gone public since the pandemic began. West Ali Magal, head of a private school in Karachi, Pakistan, says the number of children attending his school has dropped by two-thirds. Teachers who lose their jobs as a result of such changes may have to rely on tutoring to make money.
And governments such as the UK and Australia pay private tutor providers for participating in catch-up education schemes. This public money, albeit temporary, will help private providers expand. The pandemic has also encouraged the industry to invest more in online products and made them more convenient for parents and children. The growth of various educational services on the Internet should make tutoring cheaper and more accessible.
A smart thing to do
A boom in private learning could eliminate some of the damage caused by the pandemic. A recent study in England found that before the pandemic, children who used Cumon’s post-school math under the age of 11 were about seven months ahead of their peers of similar descent. Other studies show that poor children who attend quality test classes benefit more than rich students, says Steve Entrich of the University of Potsdam. This suggests that after-school classes can be “a tool to bridge the learning gap” between richer and poorer children, he says. This gap has been exacerbated by COVID-19.
In practice, private learning can have disastrous consequences. In many countries, especially the poor, public teachers provide much. Some put more energy into side work than into their daily work. The corrupt force students to pay for extra lessons, leaving important materials out of the regular lesson or simply hinting that they will put lower marks on children whose families do not cough. Opportunities to profit from private tutors make it harder to persuade teachers to work in remote villages where families are least able to afford extra classes, Mr Bray said.
Additional training often increases inequality. In England and Wales, the Sutton Trust found that 34% of the wealthiest parents (calculated on the basis of issues such as car and computer ownership, holidays and the number of bathrooms in their homes) had ever paid for extra classes. , compared to 20% of the poorest. Worldwide, less affluent families tend to benefit from poor service providers. Poor learning can be harmful if it makes children tired, tense or satisfied. One study in India found that children who received private tutors were more likely to miss school and that their grades were the same or worse than those of their peers.
The greatest difficulties arise when additional training is so widespread that it begins to be considered the norm. Instead of supporting students with difficulty, some teachers in China are now more likely to offer to seek the help of private tutors, says Wei Zhang of East China Pedagogical University in Shanghai. She says some of the best schools require students to study part of the curriculum before the beginning of the semester, which for many parents means hiring private tutors. This can make schools more efficient than they actually are. Schools face pressure from parents whose children do a lot of extra activities to move faster than usual. This puts classmates who cannot afford them at a disadvantage.
Post-school educators are often more likely to try out new curricula, teaching styles, or technologies than hidden public schools. Their experiments help useful innovations find their way into formal school systems. But they can also resist reforms – such as improving exams – that firms are worried about, which could reduce demand for their services. Large such sectors can disrupt policies far beyond education. The Chinese Communist Party is convinced that the high cost of schooling is one of the reasons why fewer children are being born in Chinese families than the authorities would like.
In July, the Chinese government banned training on weekends and holidays and banned vendors from making a profit. But as demand grows, politicians in other countries are seeking to make access to further learning fairer rather than trying to ban it. Efforts in Japan and South Korea have included creating public alternatives to private schools and experimenting with voucher schemes that aim to prevent the poorest children from accessing it. “It is very difficult for governments to abolish shadow education once it has taken root,” said Mr Christensen of Aarhus University. “We need to work out how to maximize the best sides and marginalize the worst.” ■
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An earlier version of this article was published online on October 3, 2021