Global private tutoring booms as virus shuts schools

Lilly Wong, a primary school teacher in Beijing, is bracing herself for extra work as China’s coronavirus epidemic seems to be stabilising. The increased demand is not extra hours in her day job but her side hustle, as one of the so-called “super tutors” who can demand as much as $300 for 45 minutes work.

“Some students do not have the ability to study by themselves, so in order to catch up at school they will have to hire super tutors,” she says through a translator.

The school semester has not yet started, but because of the closure during quarantine, Ms Wong says parents will be seeking extra help so their children can catch up for the Senior High School Entrance examination, or Zhongkao.

Lilly Wong is not her real name — she is keen to keep her identity secret because the practice is officially forbidden in her state school. But by working eight hours every weekend as a maths tutor, charging $80 per hour she earns almost as much again as her teacher’s salary, allowing her to save for her daughter’s own tuition fees.

One Chinese analyst says some tutors bill up to $300 per 45 minutes, and richer parents may spend more than $10,000 per term in the build-up to the pivotal Gaokao exam that determines university admission. Before coronavirus, Ms Wong taught face to face and, during the worst weeks, she used online platforms or WeChat.

According to Unesco monitoring, 29 countries have closed schools nationwide, having an impact on almost 391.5m children and youth. A further 20 countries have implemented localised school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, hundreds of millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.

In place of class-based lessons, online tutors and e-learning companies have filled the educational hole. Those who usually deliver tutoring in-person, like Ms Wong, hope for a fillip when the isolation period comes to an end.

According to market research group Technavio, the private tuition market will grow in the US by $7.37bn by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate of almost 8 per cent. Some of the biggest players are Chegg, Club Z and Varsity Tutors.

Mark Bray, emeritus professor and Unesco chair in comparative education at the University of Hong Kong, says that online tutoring companies have experienced “much increased demand while the face-to-face operators suffer the same constraints as schools that have been suspended”.

Ruth Benny, a Hong Kong education specialist at Top Schools, says some parents are coping with trying to keep their children focused on home learning programmes while also trying to work from home. “Clearly there are some parents who are losing their minds,” she says.

Hong Kong schools have been closed since January, and Ms Benny says the measures had been good business for “the smart” tutors.

Otherwise parents had been trying a number of measures, including putting children together in small groups.

The best tutoring companies with their own specialist platforms, Prof Bray says, can do very well at sustaining pupils’ interest. “The large ones have specialist research and training teams, and are more nimble and dynamic than the schools.”

However, Wei Zhang, associate researcher at East China Normal University’s computer science and technology department, says not all online tutoring is good. “Quite the opposite, [companies] are very aggressive in marketing, and the quality of service varies greatly.”

Some parents in Asia have sourced tutors overseas. Nathaniel McCullagh, the founder of UK-based Simply Learning Tuition, says his company has had a big increase in inquiries from China for online tuition. One of his tutors, London-based Romola Nuttall, says her workload has increased. “I make sure that my lessons are a bit more fun so that it’s not another online lesson, keeping them doing stuff that will hold their interest. It’s easier to get bored the less you do. The older ones [are] getting bored with not going to school.”

She tutors English-speaking expats and Chinese locals between the age of seven and 18, who want an English education. “Brits have cultural capital,” Ms Nuttall says, which is something chains of British schools, including Dulwich College, have capitalised on by opening outposts in China.

Some affluent parents have decided to hire expensive tutors to homeschool their children. Adam Caller, founder of Tutors International, which places tutors with families, reports a sharp rise in requests. “As a company we would do 12-16 placements a year and I could comfortably do that this month.” Calls have come from Portugal, Italy, Dubai and Central America. “A couple of clients are planning to go on a yacht for a few months, [they] think they can hide away. If you can manage to get everyone on crew who doesn’t have coronavirus then you can wait it out but [what] if one of you gets it and [you’re] miles away from home?”

Mark Maclaine, a London-based tutor has had a “tonne of requests coming in from overseas clients” recently, mainly from families in Hong Kong and Singapore. Many have asked him to fly over and stay with them. “Most have said they’re concerned about how long their kids will be out of school and what effect that might have on their learning.”

Despite the offer of “large fees”, he has turned the parents down because he is afraid of letting his current students down and getting stuck overseas should flights be suspended. Money is no concern to these parents, he says. One father told him, “This is the best investment I can make so you tell me what it would take to get someone here to Hong Kong”. Some have “no problem paying for private jets or more money for unsociable hours tutoring, due to time zones”.

“A few of these overseas clients have agreed to be tutored online, so it’s meant quite long days for me. Luckily these are during times when my students here are at school — due to time zones.”

Mr Maclaine has also had a number of requests from parents in the UK, preparing for potential school closures. “Many have been told by their schools that if GCSEs were cancelled then exams would likely be pushed back to the autumn term.” So they have also been checking on his summer availability.

“One parent [said], ‘With GCSEs coming up we can’t afford to take the risk that you’ll be booked up Mark’.”

Some expats who fled Hong Kong in the wake of the virus are now bringing their children back from other countries, such as the UK. “Hong Kong might be one of the safer places to be at the moment,” Ms Benny says.

This article has been amended since publication to correct details of when the Zhongkao exam is taken.

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