The shadow side of education

The shadow side of education

Written by Pieter Vergouw

Illustration by Rena Hänel

Private tutoring is an activity that has ancient roots. Patrician Roman families would hire a tutor to educate their children in the skills of poetry, geography, and public speaking. Upper-class families in Victorian Britain would often have a governess to teach their offspring. People from these bygone days did not have the advantages of online platforms, but other forms of support remain unchanged – ambitious families and deep pockets.

Employing the services of a private tutor is part of a wider movement in education, further named the ‘shadow education’. According to researchers Louise Elffers and Daury Jansen from the University of Amsterdam, this term does not involve private schools that are frequented by students instead of the regular, publicly funded educational institutions. Instead, shadow education refers to additional educational activities that students pursue in their free time with the intention of improving their achievements at school.

It is not difficult to see why shadow education has gained popularity in the Netherlands.
The general education sector has proven to be resilient in dealing with corona crisis limitations. However, it is still feeling the negative effects of the crisis’ aftermath. In a short amount of time schools had to adapt to the challenges of distance learning. In addition to this, a dramatic shortage of qualified teachers and school administrators in both secondary and vocational education ensures that the sector will be under strain for years to come.

Parents are also supposedly more demanding of the school achievements of their children considering the increased pressure on performance and competition in public education. This is unjustified, Elffers points out. The problem lies in the perception that career prospects are determined at an early age in the Dutch education system. At the end of primary education, children receive a recommendation from their school that determines which level of secondary education they were assigned to and ‘upgrading’ to a higher level proves difficult. This approach emphasises the students’ performance compared to their peers.

This scenario has proven to be beneficial to the popularity of private agents in the education sector, who also benefit from the increasing availability of digital education tools. The International Bureau of Education of UNESCO refers to this development as the ‘platformization’ of education. Online platforms designed to organise interactions between users are changing the form, meaning and control of education. These platforms can reproduce the curriculum in a personalised and adaptive way and are used by a multitude of providers, including private tutors.

Nonetheless, there are worries that some students are struggling with the challenges this new way of learning presents to them. According to the Dutch higher education inspectorate, especially the students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students with learning disabilities are at risk, for example because of a lack of digital proficiency. Some would argue that shadow education could play a role in clearing backlogs.
This poses the risk of increasing the already existing inequality of opportunities, as students from affluent backgrounds primarily engage with private services. That is because students tend to take their parents’ social status as a reference for their own aspirations to try to avoid downward social class mobility. Combined with the monetary costs of providing extra tutoring, shadow education appears to widen class differences.

It would be interesting to assess whether the challenges that the general education system has faced, especially regarding the rise of online education, will further contribute to the popularity of shadow education. In recent years, companies that offer private tutoring have gained ground. It is estimated that parents of secondary school students spend €286 million per year on this form of extracurricular schooling for their children.

These companies offer a tailor-made approach to improve a wide range of skills, and they praise themselves for their personalised approach, flexibility, and academic success rates. Their clients employ these services both for remediation and a desire to excel at a certain subject. Research from the United States on the rise of private tutoring shows that tutoring centres are located in areas with high-income families, but, surprisingly, the presence of private schools had no effect on predicting whether private tutoring centres would be there or not. If anything, the data shows that if choice of schools goes up, private tutoring goes up, too.

In the Netherlands, private education is far less common than in Anglo-Saxon countries. In fact, only 50 private secondary schools exist in this country; the public education system is the norm for most children. The use of private tutoring is also less widespread than in many other countries. It is therefore difficult to predict whether the use of shadow education has already reached its limit in the Netherlands or that a dramatic rise is yet to come. That is indeed a reason to ensure that the public education sector is well-prepared to meet the demands of students from all social strata, now and in the future.

According to Elffers, this is a joint assignment for research, policies, and practice. She thinks it is an important question to define which role public education needs to play in society. What is to be expected of public schools in terms of extra support for individual students and offering extracurricular activities? This requires an open mind and plenty of policy coordination between educators, policymakers and researchers.

There is no doubt that both parents and the education system have the best interests of the students at heart. Smaller classes, less teaching aimed at the whole classroom and more teacher-student interactions in small-scale working groups would benefit all students. Online platforms can play an important role in responding to the needs of individual students and help them to enhance their strengths and address deficiencies. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. Strains on the public education system result in people using shadow education to enhance their capabilities. The challenge is to find the right balance between these two approaches.


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Hi, I’m Pieter. I have a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and I am a qualified English and Economics teacher. I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in Law at the University of Amsterdam and my interests include adult education, integrity in sports, tax policy and international law.

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