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Shadow education: How does private tutoring affect the lives of teachers?

published 7 June 2016 updated 7 June 2016
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Private supplementary tutoring is commonly called shadow education because it mimics the mainstream. As the mainstream grows, so does the shadow; and as the curriculum changes in the mainstream, so it changes in the shadow.

Shadow education has long been a major phenomenon in Korea, where 81.1% of elementary school pupils were estimated to be receiving private tutoring in 2014. Proportions have also long been high in Japan and other prosperous parts of East Asia ( Bray & Lykins 2012; Bray 2015), but shadow education has now become a global phenomenon. In England and Wales, a 2014 survey of 2,700 young people asked whether they had ever received private or home tutoring. In London, 37% of respondents replied affirmatively, and 20% in the rest of the country did so ( Sutton Trust 2014, p.2). Shadow education has become widespread in other parts of Europe and in lower-income regions such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its expansion reflects the growing acceptability of private-sector roles in education, and the feelings of families that school systems are not delivering enough.

Much of this shadow education is provided by regular teachers seeking ways to enhance their earnings ( Bray & Lykins 2012). Viewed positively, these activities enhance students’ learning and help to retain teachers in the profession. However, the tutoring also increases teachers’ workloads and stress, and in some cases leads to conflict of interest. Especially problematic are situations in which teachers tutor the students for whom they are already responsible in regular classes. Transparency International has highlighted the dangers, particularly in settings where teachers’ salaries are very low, of teachers deliberately reducing effort in regular classes in order to promote demand for their private lessons.

Yet shadow education has a backwash on education systems even when teachers are not providers of tutoring. When large proportions of students receive shadow education, teachers may assume that their students have supplementary support, and then make less effort than they would otherwise. Shadow education also increases disparities in classrooms when some students receive tutoring but others do not.

A question then arises about the roles of teachers’ unions. Most unions have been silent on the matter, in part because they want to protect their members’ incomes from supplementary as well as regular sources. Nevertheless, they might consider including focus on shadow education in teachers’ codes of conduct, particularly to avoid conflict of interest when teachers wish to tutor their existing students. They could also dialogue with governments on appropriate modes of regulation.

This website is about Education in Crisis. Shadow education is an outcome of the crisis insofar as families feel that schooling is inadequate to meet their needs and teachers feel that their incomes are too low. But it can also contribute to the crisis by:

  • assisting some pupils and excluding others, thereby exacerbating social inequalities;
  • distracting some teachers from their principal duties in schools.

The topic deserves much more discussion, not only by policy makers but also by teachers’ unions and their members.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.