Making a study of a parallel education system

Book facts: Confronting the Shadow Education System: What Government Policies for What Private Tutoring? (2009), by Mark Bray. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). Reviewed by Dr. W. Ariyadasa de Silva

Most readers in Sri Lanka, I suppose, would be rather surprised to know that an educational practice that is widely considered to be an unhealthy local phenomenon is also prevalent in many other countries. I refer to what in Sri Lanka is known as ‘private tuition’ and elsewhere is called ‘private tutoring’.

Many people in Sri Lanka have protested about the existence of private tuition outside school hours on the grounds that it obstructs extra-curricular activities and burdens young people. This perspective has many parallels elsewhere. But private tuition can also have a positive side, and some governments have even provided financial help in the form of vouchers for underprivileged children to pay their way through private tutoring..

The latest academic analysis of this phenomenon is the book under review. It is not Mark Bray’s first book on the subject, for he is the reputed author of several books on the theme. Dr. Bray teaches at the University of Hong Kong, and when this book was prepared was on leave, serving as Director of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). This new volume presents the culmination of his research so far.

The focus is on what Bray calls the shadow education system of private supplementary tutoring which is provided in parallel to the formal system. He uses the metaphor of the shadow for two main reasons:

  • Private supplementary tutoring exists only because the mainstream education system exists; and
  • As the size and shape of the mainstream change, so do the size and shape of supplementary tutoring.

Bray has written this book in order to stimulate debate. He recognizes that different responses might be needed in different settings. Many educational planners and policymakers choose to ignore private tutoring, leaving it to market forces.

By contrast, some have attempted to ban it. Bray suggests that neither approach is appropriate. The phenomenon is too important to be ignored; and experience shows that banning does not work. Thus, more nuanced approaches are needed.

Bray has arranged his presentation in three clear steps:

  • Description: the characteristics of the phenomenon
  • Diagnosis: economic, social and educational implications
  • Responses: appropriate actions by planners and policymakers.

Each will here be examined in turn.


Significant commonalities and variations may be noted in the scale, intensity and mode of tutoring.
Scale: Private tutoring is prevalent in low-income countries such as Cambodia and Kenya, in high-income countries like Canada and Japan, and of course in countries like Sri Lanka which fall in between.

Intensity: In the lower grades, children may be subject to 1 to 3 hours of tutoring per week; and in the middle school and junior secondary grades, 3 to 10 hours of tutoring per week is common. Senior secondary students may receive over 10 hours of tutoring per week.

Mode: Tutoring can be in person, by correspondence, by telephone, or through internet. Tutoring in person can be one-to-one, in small groups, in large groups, or in lecture theatres with overflow rooms supported by video links. The tutors may be mainstream teachers who already bear responsibility for their pupils, or external teachers. Some tutors are university undergraduates or school students. Much private tutoring remains informal, but it is being increasingly structured by local, national and even multinational companies. Kumon began in Japan in 1954 and now serves four million students in 45 countries using a franchising system.


In the second step of his presentation, Bray focuses on the economic, social and educational implications.

Economic implications: Private tutoring consumes a large percentage of household expenditure. Dramatic statistics include the following:

  • Korea: In 2006, household expenditure on private tutoring was US$ 24 billion, which amounted to 2.8% of GDP. This amount was equivalent to 80% of government expenditure on public primary and secondary education.
  • Egypt: In 2002, household expenditure on private tutoring amounted to 1.6% of GDP.
    Private tutoring has various positive economic dimensions. Tutoring fees provide significant income for teachers, enabling them to support their families. Similarly, the fees earned by university and school students help them to pursue their studies. Private tutoring helps school children to acquire skills which are a form of human capital contributing to economic growth.

At the same time private tutoring promotes inefficiencies in the allocation of resources. Teachers may lose interest in their own mainstream teaching because of greater interest in their tutoring side-activities. Additionally, much tutoring revenue is beyond the reach of the tax collector.

Social implications : Market-driven tutoring maintains and/or exacerbates social inequalities since high-income households can purchase more and better private tutoring than low-income households. Private tutoring increases social pressure on families.

Private tutoring dominates children’s lives and restricts their leisure. However, students may find private lessons a welcome opportunity to meet friends. Tutoring is more common in urban locations on account of the more competitive environment and greater availability of tutoring services.

Educational implications : The impact of private tutoring provided under a government policy to support low achievers is very different from that of market-driven tutoring. In most settings, tutoring supports mainstream education by providing supplementary avenues to strengthen the class work done in school.

However, in some settings tutoring undermines the school work. For instance, the pedagogical approaches of mainstream education and private tutoring may differ significantly. The mainstream teacher of mathematics may concentrate on students’ comprehension of concepts and principles while private tutors may solve problems mechanically.

When examinations are round the corner, private tutoring may become not a supplement but a substitute to mainstream education. Students in many countries place more faith in the coaching of private tutors than in their mainstream school teachers.


From the diagnosis arises the question what planners and policymakers can and should do. Bray suggests that they should begin by mapping contexts, objectives and structures. Mapping is important because each setting is distinctive, and policies must be formulated to suit specific circumstances.

To begin, the author recommends planners and policymakers to ask two basic questions:

  • To what extent is shadow education a problem (or likely to be one) which damages educational, social and economic objectives and needs to be controlled?
  • To what extent is shadow education a potential asset which has hitherto not been used fully and which should be encouraged?

From the answers to the above can flow ways to shape demand or supply, and to improve regulatory structures.

Addressing the demand: Governments in Australia, England, France, Singapore and the USA have attempted to stimulate the demand for tutoring. The Australian voucher scheme launched in 2004 enabled eligible parents to spend up to Aus$ 700 (approximately Rs 70,000) to secure tutoring for their children. A similar system was used in the USA, and both schemes were part of the inspiration for a model in England.

The Singapore government has provided grants to community groups in order to stimulate demand among low achievers; and the French government has used taxation incentives. Elsewhere, policymakers have desired to dampen demand because they consider the burden on families to be excessive. However, many schemes have been unsuccessful. Particularly significant are the experiences of Korea and Mauritius, where many strategies adopted to control and prohibit private tutoring have had limited success. These experiences underline the need to address tutoring before it becomes socially ingrained as a problem.

Policies focusing on demand for tutoring should address the root causes rather than superficial symptoms. These root causes partly lie in culture and economics, making it difficult for Ministries of Education to deal with them alone. However, education authorities do have some levers to shape patterns. These include examination systems and transition rates at each stage of the education system.

Addressing the Supply : When teachers offer extra lessons to their students, to some extent they create their own markets. Bray refers to instances where teachers teach only part of the curriculum in normal school hours and force the students to come to them for extra tutoring. These teachers may let students know that progression to higher grades is partly controlled by the teachers themselves. Other suppliers include tutoring businesses which reach potential clients through large-scale advertising.

Improving regulatory structures : Some governments attempt to control private tutoring through tight regulations, while other governments have no regulations at all. One common restriction is a ban on mainstream teachers tutoring their own pupils.

Lithuania has a particularly elaborate framework. The law provides a comprehensive definition of a private tutor and a detailed registration procedure. The tutor must observe ethical practices, attend to the learners’ safety, and provide appropriate locations for tutoring. Teachers are not permitted to tutor the students for whom they already have responsibility in the mainstream.

Although this book says little explicitly about Sri Lanka, readers will readily recognize the issues that it raises. Moreover, the comparative analysis places Sri Lankan patterns in perspective, permitting some benchmarking and a feeling that we are not alone in needing to address the issues.

The book shows that private tutoring is deeply ingrained in many societies, and spreading fast in others, the growth being promoted by:

  • Inadequate salaries of mainstream teachers (e.g. in many low-income societies across South Asia and elsewhere), forcing them to find supplementary incomes;
  • The competitive nature of society and the perceived rewards that can be achieved by investing in private tutoring (e.g. in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, where teachers are relatively well paid);
  • Government initiatives (e.g. in the USA and England) to make schools more competitive and to raise the standard of low-achievers; and
  • Perceptions of a decline in the quality of mainstream education (e.g. in Uganda and Malawi).

This book should constitute essential reading not only for planners and policymakers in Ministries of Education but also for the general public. In addition to stimulating awareness, it highlights the need for further local research. In Sri Lanka, a group of teachers of the Faculty of Education, University of Colombo, including the present reviewer, collected some data two decades ago but very little significant research has been done since then. It is a major agenda which has been overlooked.

Mark Bray must be congratulated for collecting a wealth of international data and for marshalling them to produce a very informative book. It is brilliant in conception, painstaking in execution, global in approach, and encyclopedic in treatment. The style is lucid and forceful, and makes exhilarating reading. This book has been widely acclaimed as an outstanding publication and has attracted worldwide interest and attention. Already arrangements are being made to translate it into a number of languages. I should like to see Sinhala and Tamil translations of the book, and I know that Mark Bray ( and UNESCO-IIEP would also welcome expressions of interest from would-be translators and publishers.

(The reviewer was formerly Senior Professor of Humanities Education and Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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