Private Tutoring: Rising in the Shadows

smaidWhile tight school budgets and teacher union complaints make the newspaper headlines in many European countries, it may be less visible that each year families across the EU spend billions to supplement their children’s schooling with private tutoring. The recent decade has witnessed private tutoring becoming a new booming industry in Europe, with parents in both Germany and France spending more than €1 billion a year for additional tutoring lessons for their children. Though the Scandinavian countries are largely left untouched by this phenomenon, it is on a rise in both Western and Southern Europe, along with the post-Soviet countries in the east.

Are Europeans becoming more eager for education, or is this a symptom of a declining public education quality? According to Mark Bray from the University of Hong Kong and the author of the 2011 report[1] about private tutoring prepared for the European Commission, “most of the pressure for tutoring comes from high achievers. Private tutoring is much less about pupils who are in a real need of help that they cannot find at school, and much more about maintaining the competitive advantages of the already successful and privileged.

Widespread in the south, scarce in the north

Looking at the map of Europe, tutoring is most widespread in Southern Europe, especially in Greece and Cyprus, followed by Malta, and reflects a long tradition of parallel education systems. Tutoring is also widespread in many Central and Eastern European countries, caused to some extent by teachers looking for an additional source of income. Tutoring is growing in Western Europe, especially with rising number of tutoring companies and market nature of tutoring becoming increasingly acceptable. Perhaps only in Scandinavia do the old patterns, in which families have full confidence in schools, remain robust, concludes Mark Bray. Using an example of Finland, he notes that the country has remarkable equality between schools, a highly professional teaching force and no national high-stakes testing, factors leading to private tutoring remaining at very low levels.

Unlike the Hong Kong “celebrity tutors” who attract pupils in large lecture theatres and broadcasted video sessions, most of European tutoring is still on a one-to-one basis or in very small groups led by teachers, university students or retired teachers, with classroom-based tutoring and courses offered by private tutorial companies on the rise. New technologies also play a role in Europe, ranging from websites matching tutors and students, to companies offering tutoring over the Internet. Companies like TutorVista claim that online tutoring is “just a click away” and base their operation on skilled English speaking graduates with lower wages from other countries, such as India, who are acquainted with the British education system and can free the families from meeting tutors-strangers in their own or tutor’s  homes.

Competitive testing creates a tutoring market

Tutoring subjects in Europe are most frequently mathematics and national languages. According to Mark Bray, “this reflects the importance placed on these subjects in examinations for progression from one level to the next”. Although the subjects may be taught well, still “many families fear that the school provision is not enough and they seek supplementation outside the school”.

While the academic quality of teaching may be solid in many European countries, demand for tutoring may be caused by competition among students fuelled by high-stakes examinations enabling entry to higher stages or a more elite education. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe that recently introduced changes in their examinations systems at the end of secondary education and before entry to universities, such as the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia, all experience a rise in the private tutoring business focusing on this market niche.

Motives for private tutoring may also result from other more subtle shortcomings of schools, as indicated by an Estonian private tutor: “Very often, my primary role is to be a psychologist, confidant and a supporter and only after that a provider of specific knowledge“. Laura Kirss, a researcher from Estonian think-tank Praxis, who wrote a study about private tutoring[2], concludes that “there seems to be a lack of individual approach to students at Estonian schools and somehow families are not able to fulfill this role, either“.

While tutoring as a better tailored and customized way of teaching has many benefits for those who take it, still education policy makers should be on alert when countries experience its boom. As Mark Bray explains, poorer families cannot access private tutoring, and social inequities may rise. Also, tutoring may take away good teachers from schools, or make the teachers who do both jobs focus more on the better-paid private  lessons than on lessons they give at schools. There are even countries experiencing a backwash effect on curriculum, when parts of state curriculum become increasingly offered only in paid private lessons. Finally, pupils may be tired from so much academic work and lack a healthy lifestyle, warns Bray..

State curriculum sale out

Iveta Silova from the Lehigh University (USA) and co-editor of the book on private tutoring in post-Soviet countries[3], Education in a Hidden Marketplace, illustrates how tutoring can affect public schools: “What we see is an almost seamless merging of public schooling and private tutoring. In some countries, such as Azerbaijan and Cambodia, for example, it is practically impossible to complete the state-mandated curricula without enlisting private tutoring services. In these countries, only part of the state curriculum is available during the official school hours; the rest of the state curriculum is being unofficially «sold» through private tutoring lessons.” While the reasons for such a merger of public schooling and private tutoring vary across different contexts, the outcomes are the same: the complete public school curriculum is available only in combination with private tutoring, concludes Silova.

A similar story can be found in Georgia: “The school program was too easy and I needed to prepare for university entrance examinations, which required much deeper and comprehensive knowledge”, says a Georgian student cited in the book co-edited by Iveta Silova. Tamar Bregvadze from the Georgian think-tank International Institute for Education Policy, Planning and Management explains that Georgian secondary schools lost prestige during 2005-2010, when receiving a secondary school certificate was perceived as too easy compared to newly introduced requirements for university entry. “This policy led to a situation when mainstream education was almost totally substituted by private tutoring in the four subjects covered by entrance examinations“. Later in 2010, the Georgian Ministry of Education turned the wheel and made secondary school certificate marks more important in the university selection procedure expecting to regain the glitter to formal secondary education. In vain effort, as the quality of teaching remained perceived as low and the new policy actually geared the private tutoring with a new power. Recent steps taken by the Education Ministry in 2012 indicate a further swing towards making the secondary school certificate as the only transition point to universities in a hope to recover the strength and glory of mainstream education in Georgia.

Playing truant to attend private lessons

As potions of state curriculum move to paid private tutoring lessons, attendance of students in mainstream schools falls. In Education in a Hidden Marketplace, Silova describes a typical day of a secondary school student in Azerbaijan aiming for a university: “I spent the entire last year of secondary school on the road, travelling from one tutor to another and I always wanted to sleep. (…) Usually, I got up at 6 a.m. in order to prepare my homework for private tutoring lessons. Closer to entrance exams, however, I sometimes put on the alarm clock for 3 or 4 a.m. to make sure that I prepared well for my private tutoring lessons. (…) I usually went to school for the first couple of lessons and then left the school to study with tutors for the rest of the day.” Students leaving formal schools to attend private tutoring classes are not rare in Caucasian countries. Silova confirms that during her study in Azerbaijan, she observed entire classrooms that were empty during school hours because students and their teachers were leaving schools en masse to attend and conduct private tutoring lessons instead. Similar stories can be heard in Georgia and other countries where attendance rates fall in the higher stages of education when students “simply don’t have time to attend the classes”, says Tamar Bregvadze. She adds that the government responds by imposing more control of mainstream education with yet unknown results.

Holding the reins

When asked about what should be done by policy makers to address private tutoring, Silova is cautious to give instant recipes unless the issue is thoroughly researched. She claims information we have now is spotty and although the issue is well explored in Southeast and Central Europe and former Soviet countries from the students’ perspective, little is known from parents’, teachers’ and tutors’ viewpoints. A good policy will then differ if tutoring is crowding out the formal education because of low teacher wages, or because of declining quality of teaching.

At the same time, “principals and ministers can learn from the shadow,” says Bray, “and they can ask what families seem to need and are not getting from the schools.” He suggests that if tutors are more effective for some functions than teachers, then perhaps teachers could improve, or examinations systems could be redesigned to reduce pressure on students.

After a year full of school and tutoring, the student cited by Silova ends his confession by saying that “looking back, I think going to school was a waste of time. I would have been better off studying with private tutors only“. While this perspective may still sound a bit distant and strange in most EU countries, it makes a good sense that educators listen closely to students and their parents who are turning to private tutoring after they did not find what they expected in mainstream schools. Confronting the shadow education, as tutoring is often named, and learning from its consequences can be a good start also for European countries where tutoring today is far from a symptom of a declining hope in the public education system.


Martina Kubánová

Slovak Governance Institute,


The article was prepared based on authorised interviews with researchers exploring education and private tutoring, which were carried out thanks to support of NEPC – Network of Education Policy Centers ( Front page photo courtesy Flickr user Tulane Public Relations. Creative Commons

[1] Bray, Mark (2011): The Challenge of Shadow Education: Private Tutoring and Its Implications for Policy Makers in European Union. NESSE and the European Commission. Available online:

[2] Kirss, Laura (2011): Education in the Shadows: The Case of Estonia. Praxis Center for Policy Studies and the Network of Education Policy Centers. Available online:

[3] Silova, Iveta; Būdienė, Virginija & Bray, Mark (eds.) (2006): Education in a Hidden Marketplace: Monitoring of Private Tutoring. Open Society Institute and the Network of Education Policy Centers. Available online:


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