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Is private tutoring for kids really worth the money?

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Tutoring was once for kids who struggled to keep up with the class but it is so much more now.

Parents who can afford tutoring - and believe it will give their kids an edge - are signing them up for a whole raft of reasons.

They do it to help them through difficult courses but also to shine in tests such as NAPLAN and keep their marks equal to or better than their peers' results.

Instead of just going to tutors in the last years of high school, kids often have private tuition while in primary school.

Parents who can afford tutoring - and believe it will give their kids an edge - are signing them up for extra coaching, but is it really worth it?

There is a huge industry in tutoring to help students win spots at prestigious selective schools or scholarships to exclusive private schools. Tutors can assist with high school applications and preparation for interviews.

Parents are paying more for tutoring than they ever have - often thousands of dollars a year.

Some are driven by a fear that their kids will be left behind because so many others are being tutored. Parents have high expectations for their children and expect success from tutoring.

Parents born overseas are particular fans of tutoring.

I knew a family with three children (all at private schools) who had a series of tutors come to their home during the week and on the weekends to tutor in nearly every subject from primary school through high school so that they were top performers.

It cost them thousands of dollars per child every term.

There are plenty of decisions to make about tutoring. When should it start? You need to weigh up where to send them and what sort of coaching? Then there is the question of how much will be needed.

But the core issue is what parents should expect from their investment in tutoring. Are they getting value for money?

Clearly you should see marks getting better. If you have a child who is struggling with a heavy dose of tutoring you probably need to evaluate your strategy. Parents need to monitor the tutoring and assess if it is benefiting their child.

If your kid is bright, it is worth asking yourself whether tutoring is really helping, particularly if it starts at a young age.

Could it be sending them the wrong message: that they always need help to do their school work and they can't manage on their own?

Instead of working it out for themselves, they rely on someone doing it for them. A lot of schools argue that bright kids don't need to be hot-housed, that it stresses them out and gives them little downtime.

But parents tend to ignore this advice so there is a whole industry that has sprung up to get students into selective high schools.

Parents load up their expectations but they need to be very careful about doing this.

I'll never forget the 11-year-old girl in one of my daughter's classes who had to be talked out of jumping from the top floor of the building because she hadn't got into her mother's preferred selective school.

The primary school headmistress had stern words with her parents.

Then once kids are in a selective high school, the tutors argue that they need extra help to stay on top.

There are reports that around 80% of students at selective high schools are tutored.

Certainly there is a move by schools - particularly highly sought after selective schools - to introduce entry exams that are coach proof.

From 2020, NSW will have a new test for the 15,000 students sitting for 4250 places in the state's 48 selective schools.

It is likely to use online technology that can adapt questions to a student's ability. It makes the questions less predictable - which is what coaching rests on - and can target abstract reasoning to pick up the truly bright students.

This already happens in medical exams to weed out those who don't have what it takes.

How to choose a top tutor

There is a wide choice, from one-on-one and small groups to online tutors.

Always check the qualifications of your tutor and remember that the tutoring industry is unregulated.

You don't need qualifications or accreditations to run a coaching college or teach at one.

Do you choose a bright university student who performed well in their final school exams or opt for a qualified, experienced teacher?

Generally a top tutor - often an experienced teacher who is the head of a subject - can name their hourly rate. They can also pick their students and will most likely choose the best and brightest.

If you send your child to a small group and pay for a number of sessions you will pay less (around at least 30%-50%) than for a one-on-one tutor.

There are emerging online coaching services that are worth checking out. They eliminate having to drive kids to coaches or having the tutors come to your home.

Exam practice is a good idea so that your child doesn't run out of time during the real thing.

You can go to a tutor or you can buy practice or past exams online. Some colleges hold rehearsal exams for big events such as selective school entrance.

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Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
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