Tuesday July 05, 2022

Shadow education market

November 01, 2016

Private tuition has been the subject of considerable interest and educational commentary in Pakistan over the last 20 years. However, little has been written about how academically low-achieving students are using tuition in both private and government schools.

Over the past decade, Pakistan has seen the rapid growth of a third sector in education named as shadow education. According to the Annual Survey of Education Report (2013), 34 percent of private school students and 17 percent of public school students undertake private tuition in Punjab. There is little evidence to suggest that private tuition has a positive impact on learning outcomes. Keeping this in view, it is possible that private tuition, rather than a difference in schooling quality, is driving the observed learning gap between public and private schools.

Shadow education is predominantly supplied by private school teachers and though they do not shirk their regular class hours to create demand for their tuition classes, as is normally believed, private tuition actually acts as a substitute for receiving help at home for both parties involved. Moreover, it supplements formal education rather than substituting for low-quality formal schooling.

Shadow education is contentious. Those in favour claim that it can help low achievers keep up with their peers, and can further stretch the learning of high achievers. Those against feel that it enlarges considerably to existing social and economic inequalities, that it is a mechanism for the already relatively privileged to extend their privilege. The different pedagogic approaches of teachers and tutors can be confusing to students, and supplementary tutoring can exert undesirable pressure on young students by making a school day very long. Moreover, when teachers receive extra income from private tutoring of their own students, concerns arise about possible corrupting influences and hidden incentives.

It is worrying to examine the growth, scale, causes and consequences of supplementary private tutoring, described as ‘shadow education’. Attending privately-paid coaching classes is neither a totally new development, nor is it just a ‘parent’s enigma’. It is a fairly pervasive phenomenon in many regions of the world, in East and South Asia in particular. It is increasingly being perceived as ‘essential’ and ‘unavoidable’ by parents of students of all abilities.

And yet, this shadow education system, that runs parallel to the mainstream system of education, remains un-scrutinised. This relative scholarly policy and public neglect of the roots and effects of such a pervasive practice itself has to come out of the shadow, and requires preliminary enquiry of the growing ‘culture of tutoring’.

More concretely, it is important to assess the manner, nature and learning features of private tutoring that is being practised in diverse settings, for example, in the home of the tutor or the tutee or in groups, in small or large classes or in huge lecture halls equipped with public address systems. We know that teaching and learning are iterative processes and students learn from many sources other than the school. The question is: to what extent does this private tutoring help students in overcoming their learning targets?

Parents need to review that the presumed beneficial outcome of extra coaching is not measured primarily in terms of performance in examinations and is rather done on the broader registers of critical thinking, curiosity and understanding. Supplementary tutoring has effects on the school system and school processes and it is seen that schooling and coaching increasingly become extensions of each other in that they both test students in examination proficiency and these effects of a parallel system reinforces the examination pressure.

Ethically it creates a conflict of interest between the official duty of a schoolteacher and his gainful private practice when, during private lessons, he offers for a fee to his own pupils that he is supposed to provide anyway. Similarly, for students from poorer backgrounds, having little scope for private tuition does threaten to create new class divisions so far as affordable and quality private education is concerned. Hence it reinforces rather than reduces social inequalities.

Finally, in addition to the equity issue, shadow education market seem to swirl around excessive commercialisation in education which in turn damages, corrupts and deforms moral values that constitute the core basis of education. These questions are difficult but they set within a larger societal examination of the relationship between education and morality which is anything but straightforward.

Education is often thought to be contributing to ameliorating the problem of illiteracy. Literacy reducing outcomes of education, however, are not easy to measure as they may range from immediate academic gains in the form of knowledge to long-term effects on job opportunities. Viewed from the opposite end, poverty may impede educational access and learning privately and under conditions of abject poverty it may be quite daunting, though not impossible, for government schools to counter its effects.

Clearly, the school cannot do it alone. Indeed, issues of poverty are often closely entwined and fraught with those of inequality. The shadow education market is now thought to be worth millions. About half of both government and private school teachers are offering private tutoring outside their main work. But the growth of the shadow education market is exacerbating inequalities in the education system by pricing lower-income students out.


The writer is a professor of psychiatry and consultant forensic psychiatrist in the UK. Email: