Selective entry schools: tutoring improves student outcomes, but adds pressure

Gaining entry into selective schools is highly competitive. High school boy from www.shutterstock.com

The parents of high-achieving students often think of selective entry schools as the ideal option for their child. But going to one is not so easy. To gain entry to one of these government-funded selective schools, students must sit various high-pressure examinations.

Once selected, students are expected to continue to excel academically. This places more pressure on high-flying students, as they strive for perfection and try to cope with the additional strain of maintaining high grades among scores of other high achievers.

They are all vying to find their exclusive spot in schools that endeavour to produce the cream of the crop. As a culminating glory, the students then toil to produce a high ATAR, going all out to gain access to a university course of their choosing.

Very few students fly this mission solo; most are aided by coaches or tutors, who provide additional assistance with school-assessed tasks and preparation for exams. This begs the question: how effective are tutors in helping students gain entry to selective schools? How much can they help students who are already exceptional?

Does tutoring help?

An effective tutor can identify the areas in which a student needs additional help or support. Tutor and student from www.shutterstock.com

There is an increasing demand for private tutoring to help gain admission into selective entry schools and support students once selected. However, there is a lack of research in the field, as this form of “shadow education” appears to be conducted largely undercover.

This reflects the fact that the students who receive extra tuition and the instructors who provide it are reluctant to be identified.

Most students with increased academic demands are likely to perform better through the individual attention of a qualified coach or tutor. A suitably experienced and skilled tutor has the potential to home in on a student’s areas of weakness and, in so doing, provide targeted and individualised help to overcome barriers and difficulties.

Additionally, time spent with a tutor is intensive as most tutors work with students one-on-one, providing personalised assistance that often aligns with school tasks and requirements. This productive, structured use of time circumvents procrastination and poor time management.

Effective tutors are further likely to produce proactive behaviours, such as improved and successful study habits, enhanced self-motivation and increased confidence.

A trained tutor also helps deal with the complexity and demands of specific discipline areas. For example, difficulties with specialised subjects may require more help than poring over books or researching material over the internet.

The flexibility of a private tutor to a student with an increased workload is highly appealing. Tutors are often able to meet students after hours and over weekends, thereby offering a more accommodating schedule and greater availability of help.

In a largely unregulated industry, educationalists remain apprehensive about whether the benefit of tuition to exceptional students actually pays off.

Some newspaper reports maintain that the students who score highly in national examinations do not receive any form of coaching, citing examples of schools where external tutors are discouraged.

Administrators point out that assistance in just the final year will not be adequate as the run-up to the national exams is not a sprint, but a marathon.

At what cost?

Regardless of its clear benefits for students, concern is growing that tutoring encourages highly driven students, who want to attain high scores, to ignore vital components of a balanced study program such as setting achievable educational goals and cultivating positive attitudes to study.

Tutoring can increase pressure on students to perform and impact their overall wellbeing. Friends using laptops from www.shutterstock.com

Students who have gained entry to selective schools are often driven by the need to achieve examination success, ignoring all-round development. Such students often obtain external tuition in all the subjects they undertake, increasing the risk of fatigue and burnout.

Added to this is the significant financial cost of private tuition, which comes at a high price for most families. Paying for a trained, experienced tutor can cost up to $110 per hour.

The pressure on exceptional students does not end with entry to an elite school. The appendage of tutors appears to be a necessary addition to an already full workload.

The task of parents in this context is to look closely at whether the tuition program provides long-term benefits, or merely equips the child with a few “bonus” marks in the national exam.