"Do you think there's much private tutoring at your daughter's comprehensive?" I asked a father. He was taken aback. "No," he said, "I don't think so. I haven't come across it. But I'll ask my daughter, if you like." A day later, he sent me an e-mail. Headed "We are rubbish parents", it said: "I've asked Emma. She says ALL her friends are being tutored for their GCSEs, except her. We are shocked. It seems like cheating."
In London and other big cities, private tutoring is booming. It has become one of the most important, yet also unacknowledged, factors in a child's school performance. It disadvantages working-class children and undermines any pretensions to a comprehensive school system. Not only that, but it distorts the league tables of test and examination performance, which are supposed to reflect the quality of teaching in schools, and thus makes a nonsense of the government's entire strategy for raising standards.
It makes a nonsense, too, of the premium house prices that were widely reported last month. According to an economists' study, parents are paying as much as £45,000 extra for houses within the catchment areas of top-scoring primary schools. Yet the evidence from my inquiries suggests that in many schools the high scores have more to do with the tutoring that the parents arrange for their children than with anything the schools and their teachers do.
There is no official information on the extent of private tutoring, because it is in nobody's interest to collect it. Parents are often reluctant to admit to it, and schools would rather take the credit for their pupils' results themselves. But the anecdotal evidence is sobering.
Three years ago, a quarter of the 11-year-olds at one high- achieving north London primary school were being tutored. Last year, the proportion was one-third. This year, it's half. At another, lower-scoring school nearby, one-sixth of the top year were being tutored three years ago; this year, it has doubled. A third school has just two middle-class children. Each has a tutor.
Ask parents in other areas of London and you find the same story. In some schools, more than half of 11-year-olds have had at least 18 months of private tuition in English and maths before they sit their tests at 11. At other primaries, none of the children is privately tutored.
One tutor, Sarah Mills, an ex-teacher, says she feels furious when the annual test results are published and top-scoring schools are praised. "The whole thing is really dishonest. In the best schools, half the pupils are being tutored, and they get terrific results. Every year, I come close to telling the local papers: this is a sham."
It's a conclusion that some disillusioned parents are reaching for themselves. Adam sends his son to a highly rated and, he now realises, highly tutored primary. He was attracted by its glowing Ofsted reports and its test results. Yet at the age of six and a half, his son was bored and could scarcely read. "The school wouldn't give us straight answers, they weren't dealing with it, they were very lackadaisical. They just said he was doing really well, when he obviously wasn't. So we took him to a tutor, and after a year he's catching up. We'll keep it going. Because the frightening thing is, you're gambling with your child's future, and the school just wasn't interested in making things happen . . . The longer I've been there, the more convinced I've become that the good marks the school gets are mostly due to the prevalence of private tutoring."
At the same school, the mother of a ten-year-old asked one teacher why the class rarely had any maths homework. "Oh, I don't tend to give homework any more, because I know most of the children are being tutored," she said cheerfully.
Yet another mother, an American, and therefore an outsider to the British education system, was worried by her son's slide from middle to bottom maths and English sets between years five and six. She was stunned when she realised that he had been falling behind because all his friends had tutors. She hadn't known.
The hard research evidence for this phenomenon is sparse, but it exists. Diane Reay and Helen Lucey of King's College London studied 454 top-year children at eight London primaries. Reay says private tutoring has grown exponentially: it has become almost the norm among the middle classes, and it is increasing the social class differences in educational attainment.
A decade ago, Reay says, working-class families didn't mention tutoring. Now most of them know that it's going on, and feel they are failing their children because they cannot provide it. Aspirational working-class parents are desperate, and many make huge efforts to find and pay for tuition. But because they are not part of the middle-class information networks, and because they cannot afford the best teaching, they get significantly different results.
Reay came across one primary school where 65 per cent of 11-year-olds were being tutored. A significant minority of their parents spent more than £100 a week on tutoring - more than many of the black and working-class families were living on. One African-Caribbean mother, with a low-paid husband, anxious that her eldest daughter was falling behind the rest of the class, paid for five sessions with a tutor, at £20 a time. But she had four other children. When a younger child outgrew his trainers, she made the bleak calculation that it was impossible to pay for them all, and that it was pointless to try.
The primary schools have every reason to turn a blind eye to private tutoring that boosts their league-table scores. But what really matters to the parents is to get their children the best possible secondary education - either by ensuring that they will be placed in the top sets at their comprehensives, or by helping them win a place at private or selective state schools.
Greater London still has selective state schools in the outer boroughs, and the competition for places is fierce. For example, in Enfield, the Latymer School, where almost every child gets at least five good GCSEs, has more than 2,000 applicants each year for 180 places. For working-class children from other London boroughs such as Hackney or Tower Hamlets, a place at Latymer is often the only escape from the local comprehensive, officially deemed to be failing.
But an untutored child from outside Enfield has very little chance of getting in to Latymer. Primaries in other boroughs will not prepare children for the entrance examination, often as a point of egalitarian principle, and the primary syllabus usually hasn't covered the ground that Latymer tests. The consequence is that the 11-plus, here as in other parts of the capital, has in effect been privatised. Only those who can pay have a chance of success, and the social bias that has always existed in the 11-plus has increased enormously.
I came across one clever, determined, highly motivated black child from a low-achieving primary in Stoke Newington. She had been top of her class all through school, and when she found that her best friend, white and middle-class, was being tutored for the Latymer exams, Grace decided to enter them, too. But her mother, a care assistant, could afford only six weeks of tuition just before the exams. It wasn't enough. Grace was competing against children with a year of tuition behind them, and she has gone instead to a school judged by Ofsted to be unsatisfactory, and which has a severe problem with bullying.
Grace will now find it much harder than her friend to gain academic success. The government is trying to redress that imbalance by offering more help to bright, deprived children in inner-city schools. Its Gifted and Talented programme aims to identify and coach the top 5 or 10 per cent. But Reay says that, even here, there is preliminary evidence that tutoring is subverting the original aim; middle-class children are being coached so that they will be chosen for the scheme.
The hypocrisy that surrounds the issue of access to grammar schools is astounding. I once asked a parent/staff meeting at a state primary why the school did not offer children any preparation for selective tests. Everyone present, including the head teacher, found it a distasteful suggestion, and said that the school believed all children should go to the local comprehensive. A defensible principle, except that the head had her children in private schools, and every parent present either already had, or went on to, tutor their children for selective exams.
"In hundreds of interviews," says Reay, "I never came across a parent who didn't want the best for their children. Working-class parents are often very frustrated and angry because they aren't sure of the rules of the game, and they don't know how to play it. So they often end up without any choice, and their children go to the least desirable schools. But you don't find any middle-class children in the demonised schools or, if you do, they don't stay. They have the financial and cultural resources to escape them. Choice is only a reality for those who can afford to choose."
Reay's research shows that, as a consequence, schools in London are becoming increasingly segregated along class and racial lines, with working-class and ethnic- minority children concentrated in the lowest-achieving schools, and white and middle-class children dominating in the highest-scoring ones. Despite this government's declared passion for education, that polarisation has increased rather than diminished over the past four years. And, says Reay, children in the low- scoring schools are acutely, painfully aware of it. They feel themselves diminished and demeaned by being sent to them. They struggle to avoid feeling like rejects.
Even when poorer children gain a place at a good comprehensive, the inequality often remains. Because the tutoring doesn't stop.
Take Fortismere School in Muswell Hill, north London. It is regarded as one of the best state schools in the capital: two-thirds of its intake pass with five good GCSEs. Look at the figures and you can guess why. Only 13 per cent qualify for free school meals, and 16 per cent have special educational needs - way below the averages for the borough. What you cannot know is that local tutors are, as one put it, "deluged" with requests for tutoring from Fortismere parents.
It isn't unusual to meet GCSE pupils who are being tutored in four subjects. One tutor told me that she is one of six tutors for a particular pupil; he is being coached, fortnightly, for every one of his GCSEs.
Home Tutors, a London-wide agency based in Muswell Hill, has 1,500 tutors on its books. Its founder, Dr Karina Halstead, says that her agency does an enormous amount of tutoring for Fortismere's pupils. When she hears, annually, about Fortismere's good results, she says: "I should like to shout: 'Hang on, half the kids there are being tutored by us!' "
It is impossible to tell just what impact private tutoring has on the school's excellent results. It is noticeable, however, that Ofsted's main concern about the school is the relative underperformance of African-Caribbean children - the children whose parents are least likely to be able to afford tutoring. And as one tutor said to me: "Of course I make a difference. How could I not? I'm a subject specialist offering an hour of concentrated attention once a week. I've got the time to go through and reinforce everything that a class teacher, faced with 30 children, can't possibly do. It's what every child needs, but schools can't do it."
Reay and Lucey found that secondary schools were often unaware of how much tutoring is taking place - the year tutor at one comprehensive told them he didn't think much of it went on. In fact, almost every white, middle-class child in the year was being coached.
Parents in other major British cities report the same pattern: Stepping Stones, a national tutoring agency, says the demand is just as great outside London. The only constraint on its expansion, it says, is the difficulty of finding enough qualified tutors to meet the demand.
It isn't surprising that so many people are turning to tutors. Now that children are tested, formally and informally, in every year from ages seven to 18, both schools and parents are endlessly anxious about the results. Will children fail the school? Will the school fail them? The only children defined as successful are those who pass lots of tests; the only schools defined as successful are those with lots of such children. So those who can afford it will step in at the first sign of a problem, fearing that overworked teachers cannot be relied on to do the same. And those who trust in the schools often regret it - like the working-class mother of one quiet child, who realised only weeks before the GCSEs that her daughter could not tell the time or multiply.
Nor is it surprising that parents who choose to stay in the state system in the inner cities feel that the least they can do for their children is to protect them from its worst deficiencies. If they can tutor their child into the top groups, and therefore prevent their lessons being disrupted by the most disaffected and disturbed children in the school, that may feel like an absolute obligation. If the French teacher can't speak French, and the maths teacher isn't qualified in maths, it is logical to find private teachers to fill the gap.
But those private solutions just disguise the real inequalities in our education system. We are not ensuring an equal education for every child, even in those schools that embody the egalitarian ideal - the good neighbourhood primary or comprehensive. Tutoring means that bright but impoverished children are being disadvantaged at every stage.
This government objects to the purchasing of educational privilege through the private schools. It has entirely ignored the invisible purchasing of educational privilege through the tutoring system. It wants Oxbridge to increase its proportion of state school pupils from 50 to 67 per cent within the next three years. But how many of those "extra" state school recruits will have been tutored into the best state schools or the best A-level results?
What can be done? We could start by publicising what is really happening. If we are to continue judging schools by league tables of test results, let us at least recognise the realities. Schools should be required to ask parents, and parents should be required to say, once a year, whether their children have been tutored. Those figures could be added to the existing, publicly available figures on schools. They would make a difference to perceptions, and they might improve the reality.
But beyond that, we should think about what this society really wants from its education system. Our hypocrisy about it runs deep. Why do we support an education policy that prevents poor, bright children from applying to grammar schools, when the comprehensives they end up in are boycotted by the middle classes? Why do we still pretend that we have a comprehensive system in the inner cities at all, when the latest research shows that class inequalities in schools are just as marked as when comprehensives began?
And are we prepared, given our existing system of end- less testing, to provide the resources that would enable working-class children to compete on equal terms in the educational race? Or do we prefer to stay as we are, in what you might call a public-private partnership, where the middle classes take the best of the public provision and supplement it with the private - leaving the poorest just as excluded, just as educationally and socially disadvantaged, as they were 30 years ago?