Private Tuition in Primary Education: A Few Counter-Questions

“Is your child struggling in maths? A private tutor with seventeen years’ experience in coaching guarantees between 60 – 80 in the Madhyamiks with his help.”

Instead of cheering me up, this advertisement, brimming with confidence, worried me. During my own teaching career, I had never felt able to assure my students of success, with such confidence. I always felt it prudent to remember the uncertainties in ability and effort – both on my part and on part of the students. And why should the promise only be about numbers? Can teaching – the navigation of diverse social contexts to explain a variety of subjects to students, to make them think and shake them up a bit – be thought of only in terms of numbers?


Some may not, however, see what the problem of this private tutor’s promise is, when the entire education system, methods of examination and post-education careers chant invocations to greater marks, and then greater sums of money. Economy, politics and educational policy – every sphere is now dominated by competition. Hence, as the poet Parimal Ray says, today there are ‘hordes of buyers crowd the entrance of the education-shop’. Private tuition is part of this market-service. Some might ask why a little extra help, a little more room for polishing children’s skills is seen as bad. Private tutors, after all, are not a modern invention! As a teacher put it, ‘Even Alexander the Great had a private tutor’! But earlier, it was usually middle or lower-middle class men who supplemented their meagre income from small office jobs by teaching unruly sons of rich parents. Today, the picture has changed. Large coaching centres and medium or small tutorial homes are run by enormously powerful private tutors – fathers, mothers and students are merely the objects of pity.

In his book Lekhapora Kore Je, Sudhir Chakrabarty has documented and analysed the variety of coaching classes – from the cottage industry to the small factory systems – and the methods of teaching and learning used by them. I do not know if I can add anything to his work. But I will limit my discussion to tuition in the primary level. And in this matter, my opinions are chiefly in the form of some counter-questions.

Why is private tuition considered important at the primary level?
A little extra help outside school, extra practice at coaching centres to stay ahead of the competition – these demands might become visible in parents when their children reach higher classes. But at the very first moment of blossoming of a child’s school-life? Why? And why is this idea taking root – irrespective of villages and cities and of public and private schools – that to learn reading, writing and recognising numbers – that is, the bare minimum that a primary school is supposed to do – there is no recourse except a private tutor? The statistics in the Pratichi Education Report show the picture of this dependence on tuition quite clearly. Between 2002 and 2009, private tutor-dependent students in primary education have increased from 57 per cent to 64 per cent, and amongst those going to the Shishu Shiksha Kendras, from 24 per cent to 54 per cent. According to this report, 78 per cent of parents (62 per cent in 2002) think there is no deliverance except via private tutors. Of the few children who are not availing extra help, 54 per cent parents said it was because they could not afford coaching centres. So unless it is beyond the parents' capability, private tuition at the primary stage has become as necessary a chapter as going to school. Statistics from the West Bengal State Council of Educational Research and Training shows that in 2009, 71 per cent of students studying in primary schools and 80 per cent in upper-primary schools attend coaching classes. Why is it necessary to have extra help in acquiring an elementary education? Tendency towards private tuition is increasing elsewhere in the world, but there are almost no other examples such dependence at the primary level. Besides, such all-encompassing dependence on private tutors has reduced the importance of school teachers and a school education in teaching and learning. Though the main reason behind private tuition in the primary level are the excessive weight of our state education system’s curricula, stacks of examinations and the pressure to score highly in them, our eyes have moved away from these issues. There are no significant public discussions on the matter. We have ceased to emphasise that improvements in the education system is the product of social and collective thought, nurturing instead a culture of individual effort. And this has given birth to aggressive coaching-culture. Your child is not performing according to your expectations, this is your own personal failure; so the solution must also be personal effort – help from a private tutor. Discussion about what the school can do and what the teachers’ responsibilities are is subsumed by the chant of ‘Solve your problems by yourself’. So if someone suggests that the private tuition culture is a natural consequence of parents’ demands and the tutors’ supply (many of these tutors are schoolteachers themselves) then I will answer that mere spontaneity cannot be behind the power this culture wields at the primary level. It has been created by the weakness and indolence of school education systems and policies – particularly relating to curricula and examination methods, and the inability to control the market that has developed around coaching centres, books, sample question papers and supplementary publications. Added to this is our indifference to such matters.

Will private tuition give birth to new inequalities?
I was talking to a private tutor – a girl who comes from a slum-dwelling poor family in Kolkata. She has fought hard to complete her college education and now studies business management, and meets a lot of her family’s financial needs by tutoring. The confidence in her voice leaves a lasting impression. According to her, what is the problem if there are two teachers – that, an extra private tutor – instead of one? In fact, she teaches children whose parents are often unlettered, and who are therefore helpless without the help of a private tutor, because schools cannot be depended upon. If one agrees with her – and some will – then private tuition appears to be a means to overcome class-discrimination in education. But not all families can bear the costs of this – the minimum private tuition cost for each student is Rs. 40-50 – yet neither can they depend on the schools. So a new inequality develops, between children with tutors and children without them. The inequities that a school education was aimed at reducing are now manifesting themselves via the dual conduits of private tuition and decreasing importance of schools. And how much do children who do avail private tuition learn? Aren't quality differences between tutorial centres creating fresh inequalities?

Does private tuition particularly help?
A few researches show that children who avail private tuition might perform a little better in reading, writing and maths than those that do not, though there have been no rigorous studies in this area. But, there are so many coaching classes that it appears they are also differentiated along socioeconomic lines, and there is great difference in their qualities. To understand what happens in coaching classes, I had sat in a private tutor’s evening coaching class. The tutoring occurred in a small room of her house, with about seven children – from nursery to Class 7. The teacher herself goes to college. She is confident, cheerful – the first person from her family to get the opportunity to go to college. She pays for her education and her own expenses by tutoring school children. According to her, tutoring also helps her stay in touch with subjects she may no longer study herself – Bangla, English, Geography, History, Science, Maths. Her mother works as a cook in other people’s houses, her joy in her daughter’s success is remarkable. One cannot deny that private tuition has given this girl the opportunity to earn, and that in turn has given her confidence. We shall discuss this aspect a little later. How was studying that evening? The teacher gave different instructions to different students almost in the same breath, and the students had no problem understanding who she was addressing. Some copied tables from a book, some read in Hindi, a girl who goes to nursery school practised writing alphabets, another one attempted numbers. The tutor kept talking in Hindi, "Bring this line down, then take up again (directions for the girl writing alphabets); cancel above, cancel below (instructions to someone doing sums); 'What had Gandhiji said about staying healthy? Don't you remember? Memorise this, he advised walking in open air' (to a child studying Hindi)". The very next minute her attention came a full circle to the child in nursery, and the two started reading together rhythmically, 'I for Igloo... X for X-Ray... Y for Yacht'. There were no exchanges between teacher and student about what or where an igloo is, what manner of thing yachts are, and so on. As long as alphabets and words matched, it was all right. Gradually, night fell. Class was over for the day. Before leaving, the children said "good bye". I asked them, "What does this mean?" Everybody kept quiet. Only one child ventured that it meant, "I'm leaving now". My questions remained unanswered: just how effective was this study circle? Learning really does mean lots of practice, concentrated effort, etc. But this cannot exist without the basic elements of education -- to know, to understand, to see, to think, and to question. Rabindranath Tagore had termed pro-forma teaching at schools mechanical teaching, and this is just such a mechanical habit. Does this help a child's mind awaken, shake it up? Or does it hand a crutch to someone who had just learnt to walk, crippling him for life?

Do we not want change?
While discussing private tuition, a headmaster had expressed regret at the cruelty which prompts adults -- parents and the education community -- to throw children into the grinding machinery of the current education and supplementary coaching system. If we are so vocal about the change we want in so many areas -- from politics to culture -- why are we silent about this issue? Various members of the panchayats or municipalities, school teachers, the educated unemployed, and people connected to government and private enterprises are involved with coaching centres. Some time back, a candidate for the municipal elections had kicked off her campaign by identifying herself as "Miss X from Y Tutorial". This sort of 'side business' is now found everywhere. The headmaster also said, "We no longer go to the library, or the local social club. We have almost come to forget how to be socialised creatures". Thus, the space for collective action is diminishing. Acquiring an education is becoming an individual-centric number-game. Yet education is a social process, it involves discussions between teachers and students about ideologies, values and ways of life, along with reading, writing and learning maths – this is what we expect it to be. If this expectation remains unfulfilled then we must dedicate ourselves to improving school education. The space of individual competition called coaching class cannot be a substitute for that collective initiative.

Which way do we bring change?
To make private tuition unnecessary at the primary and upper primary levels we must turn our attention to schools and classrooms – experiment with teaching and learning and the processes of education. We have already heard of new processes being initiated in various parts of West Bengal. And we immediately need to stop the practice of burdening children with ‘home task’. This would, hopefully, make parents – especially those without a formal education – less dependent on private tutors. Reducing the weight of the curricula is another primary aspect of educational reform. However, after saying all this, one may ask: what would happen to the educated unemployed, who have earned some degree of independence by providing private tuitions? The co-existence of shortage and surfeit is a peculiar self-contradiction in our country and state. On the one hand we have a surplus of educated unemployed people, and on the other a deficit of appropriately trained school teachers. What can one call this, except the lack of proper planning and foresight? Will not most people agree that it is preferable to train the educated unemployed and recruit them as school teachers, than to leave them as untutored tutors taking charge of our future generations.

This was originally published in Bengali in Koishorok, April-June, 2011 and first published on this site on 19/10/2011. Translated by Priyanka Nandy.