Generally, when parents consider employing a tutor they will begin asking other parents or a school teacher in the know for a recommendation. Or they may look up tuition providers in the area who advertise their service. Taking it from there, any arrangement becomes an experiment: which may or may not work out.
But it is quite difficult for parents to get quality answers to more searching questions. For instance: Does tuition make a positive difference? Is it merely neutral? Can it even be harmful? If a tutor doesn't have a teaching qualification, does it matter? What are the different models of tuition in the market? Are some forms of tuition more effective than others?
There simply isn't any reliable 'Which?'-type consumer survey of tuition to help parents decide what might be most appropriate or the best value.
Within the constraints of the 30-minute radio documentary Teacher versus Tutor goes some way to address these matters.
It samples three very different tutoring set-ups: i/ an Explore Learning centre attached to a Sainsbury supermarket in the Midlands; ii/ The Tutor Trust, a charity that employs university students and aims to 'democratize tuition' in schools in Manchester; and iii/ Laidlaw Education, a provider of specialist support with dyslectic learners in North London.
The programme also includes interviews with school heads and teachers, the proprietor of a so-called 'supertutor' agency (fees £48 per hour), and a researcher at the Institute of Education, whose studies show that tuition for Maths is more likely to produce a statistically measurable improvement at GCSE - ie. higher grade - than tuition for English or Science.
Are there any tuition horror stories out there? Any serious warnings for parents?
Despite the presenter's stress on the fact that tuition is an unregulated industry (the 'Wild West' was a repeated metaphor) with legions of casual and unqualified practitioners, some without a 'Disclosure and Barring Service' check (CRB in the old money), the programme did not spotlight any case of Wild Westerly goings-on.
Nevertheless parents should beware of the following: wasting precious money on an incompetent or uninspiring tutor; accidentally confusing a child with mixed messages (if, for example, a different Maths method from that taught at school is preferred by the tutor); or creating stress and unhappiness if a child's leisure-time is curtailed for extra study. These were the main caveats.
As for the students tracked in the sampled tutoring organizations, perhaps unsurprisingly all spoke positively of their progress, whether keeping ahead or catching up in a subject, or overcoming a disability.
Some teachers and parents may deplore the increasing requisiteness of professional tuition in modern Britain - when they or their own parents had succeeded perfectly well on schooling alone - but over the years society, education and public feeling have greatly changed.
If tuition helps, it is here to stay.