As dusk falls in the Girlington district of Bradford, a trickle of cars begin to arrive in front of a small parade of shops. Parents who have just collected their children at the end of the school day are dropping them off at the Explore Learning tuition centre for extra maths and English coaching. The children sit at a cluster of computer terminals, where they log in to begin their evening studies. The atmosphere is relaxed and lighthearted. The children stay for an hour to work through their lessons, helped where necessary by a member of staff, with 15 minutes’ playtime at the end.
Located next to a Domino’s and a Subway, the Bradford branch of Explore Learning is a tiny window into Britain’s booming private tuition sector, now worth an estimated £2bn. At one time, private tuition meant a weekly one-to-one session at home with a tutor, the preserve of the privileged few. It is still not cheap – Explore Learning’s standard membership costs £119 a month, plus a £50 registration fee – but it is now on offer on our high streets, in supermarkets and increasingly online, with tutors offering their services from as far afield as India and Sri Lanka. Tutees include children who are little older than toddlers, pupils at prestigious private schools and undergraduates struggling at university. All are caught up in an educational arms race, which experts say is exacerbating social inequality.