Passing exams has always been a serious business. For many parents, their children excelling in the Higher School Certificate (HSC) and achieving a perfect Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has become the Holy Grail, a goal to pursue at all costs.
Too often, the quest for their children to ace the HSC begins in kindergarten with parents enrolling them in after-school or weekend coaching (or both), while also requesting harder work and more homework from their teacher. Once set, the pattern persists for the duration of their children’s schooling. While still in primary school, these professionally prepared students will be primed first to compete for places in opportunity classes, and then for places in selective high schools. After thirteen years of coaching/tutoring, the ultimate prize for parents is for their coached/tutored children to gain admission to the most sought after courses at the most prestigious universities. Thereby securing the most lucrative careers.
With over 600 coaching colleges in Sydney promising to boost student results, and thousands more private tutors who also advertise their services to parents, the coaching industry is booming. Needless to say, coaching/tutoring, especially when it extends for years, is expensive and not all families can afford to have their children attend. However, the popularity of coaching/tutoring has resulted in the presence of significant numbers of coached or tutored students in our schools. With educational opportunity a commodity already shared unequally between advantaged and disadvantaged students, coaching/tutoring has created yet another awkward division in our classrooms.
Coaching colleges and tutors exist to enable their clients to stay “ahead of the pack”. Accordingly, they deal with curriculum content before it is introduced at school. When the class teacher begins a new topic at school, more often than not, it is just revision for the coached/tutored students in the class because their coaches and tutors have already covered the work. Class teachers must then deal with coached/tutored students, who are complaining that the work is too easy for them, while the rest of the class is still learning the latest content and needs adequate time to practise and consolidate their new knowledge and skills.
Having significant numbers of coached/tutored students (professionals) in a class also dampens the motivation of their classmates, whose parents cannot afford or do not believe in after-hours coaching. Not only are coached/tutored students advantaged by prior knowledge of what is being taught, but they are generally quite smug about their ‘superiority, as well, implying that that their classmates are not as clever as they are. Thus, without the challenge of learning new skills/concepts alongside their classmates, the presence of coached/tutored students can disrupt group cohesion and the teamwork upon which it depends.
Another concern with coaching/tutoring is the difficulty that arises in establishing whether students are submitting assignments, essays and tasks that are all their own work or not. In addition, the exercise of students memorising essays largely or wholly written by their coaches/tutors or made available by them is widespread and undermines the reliability of examination results. Needless to say, all parents want the best for their children and parents are entitled to spend their money on coaching/tutoring for their children.
However, when coaching/tutoring becomes the key upon which all students must rely to the open doors to educational opportunities, then the practice becomes problematic. We are now facing the situation where after-hours and weekend coaching/tutoring has become a mammoth industry with the potential to skew the cultural and economic profile of students entering university and impair mainstream schooling. So, we must ask ourselves whether we want higher education to be dominated by a subset of professionally prepared, hot-housed students to the exclusion all others and, if not, what can we do about it? What regulations may be reasonably imposed? We might, for example, require the coaching industry to employ only properly qualified staff, set caps on the hours that students spend on after-school and weekend courses and disallow cashback bonuses to students. However, if we want real reform, we only need to look at China, widely considered to the spiritual home of out-of-school coaching and tutoring.
In a bold move designed to promote educational equality and reduce the unreasonable academic burden placed on children, in July 2021, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese State Council banned after-school tutoring for primary and middle school students in a bid to reduce the academic burden and promote social equality. What is more, billion-dollar, curriculum tutoring companies were all forced to register as non- profit organisations and put a cap on the amount of homework set for students.
In Australia, we have long recognised and failed to close the yawning achievement gap between advantaged students (from wealthy families and well-resourced schools) and disadvantaged students (from struggling families and under-resourced schools). The unstoppable rise of the professionally prepared student is not just another obstacle to fairness; it is more. Filling our universities with hot-housed students comes at the expense of uncoached students, who are independent thinkers with the natural ability to succeed and make a real difference. Given the choice, which students would you like to see filling the ranks of the professions upon which we all depend?