When Francoise Collet realised she was spending six hours a week helping her daughter with her homework, she knew she needed help.
While nine-year-old Sarah’s Dubai school report said everything was fine, Mrs Collet found herself teaching her daughter large portions of the curriculum herself.
So the Belgian mother, who has lived in the UAE for 12 years, had her daughter independently assessed – and this confirmed her worst fears. Sarah had gaping holes in her knowledge.
Struggling to get her daughter up to scratch herself, she turned to a tutoring centre.
“When we did the homework I had to teach her everything and, since English is not my mother tongue, I needed the support of real English-speaking tutors,” says Mrs Collet, who saw a huge improvement after signing up Sarah for weekly sessions of maths and English.
Her decision is not unusual. In her daughter’s class alone, a third of the children are regularly tutored. One British primary teacher, who asked not to be named, says constructive feedback during a parent-teacher meeting often results in a parent hiring a tutor as a “quick-fix” solution to get their child up to speed.
“The tutoring culture has emerged in recent years and it is growing,” says Dr Mohammad Adnan Alghorani, chairman of the department of psychology and counselling at UAE University.
“Education in the UAE is mostly bilingual and many parents are not bilingual themselves.
“They feel they want the best for their children from the foundation so they rush to have a tutor to complement the teaching their child receives at school.”
While Mrs Collet believes the problem is caused by education systems focusing too much on science instead of the basics of maths and literacy, others believe it is simply changing lifestyles.
“Life is busy and parents are both working now. Twenty or 30 years ago women were not working, particularly in Arab society, so they could take care of a child’s homework,” says Rumaisa Mohani, the chief executive and founder of E-Aid, an online tutoring tool set to be launched this year.
“Parents don’t have time now and they need someone to stay with their child and make sure they are doing their homework. So, for an hour or so, a tutor comes to their home.”
She knows only too well the demands schoolchildren face. A teacher in Abu Dhabi for 17 years, she was regularly called on by her students to tutor them after school.
While the majority of her work focused on secondary schoolchildren, she says there is just as much pressure on primary pupils to
“The world is very competitive now and when we were growing up we did not face as much pressure,” she says. “But developing a child is not only up to the school teachers; parents have to be involved because the education process goes on at home too. It’s about the whole life of the child.”
But parents admit that furthering their child’s education themselves is not easy, particularly when emotional ties leads to conflict.
“I couldn’t always view the situation objectively. The patience is not the same when it’s your child. You lose your patience much faster and my job is to be a mother, not a teacher,” says Mrs Collet.
Dr Alghorani believes differently. He says parents who rely on tutors are being “lazy” and demonstrating “poor parenting skills”.
“They just want to assign that responsibility to someone, so they pay the money and feel they are being good parents,” he says.
“Unfortunately they are denying themselves the opportunity to interact with children at that early age because helping their children study is not only education but also a child and parental relationship booster.”
Dr Alghorani says many schoolchildren are already overburdened here because they are being taught both an Arabic and English curriculum, making after-school tutoring a step too far.
“It’s too much for young children, so you can understand their resentment,” he says. “As a school psychologist, I receive complaints from parents that the child is not co-operating with their tutor.”
The Abu Dhabi Education Council says private tutoring is not permitted and the education body discourages teachers from working on the side as tutors. Search online, however, and there are dozens of advertisements for private tutors.
Parents will recommend tutors to friends and with hourly sessions earning Dh200 an hour or more, it can be a lucrative second job with some teachers even tutoring children they already teach in school.
“While I take the view that anyone can benefit from tutoring there is a conflict of interest there and the responsibility should be on the sponsor to ensure that doesn’t go on. It’s a minefield out there,” says Clive Power, founder of Power Tutoring, one of a new crop of licensed tutoring centres that have opened in Dubai’s Knowledge Village in the last few years.
Mr Power says his centre, which opened in 2006, formalises tutoring in the UAE by “bringing it out of the shadows” and highlighting why home tutors may not be in the best interests of the child.
“Parents may be getting short-changed having their child tutored at home by a teacher who is not a specialist in the subject or for whom it is not in their best interest to see the child progress because that puts them out of a job,” he says.
The centre launched with one full-time tutor and now has 13 full-time staff, including seven subject specialist tutors.
Children receive a free assessment and are placed in age and ability-appropriate classes of up to five
“Everybody has a different story as to why they are here but tutoring is not only there for people who need to catch up in the same way that gyms are not only there for people who want to lose weight,” says Mr Power, whose 180 students pay an average Dh5,000 for a weekly session over a full academic year.
“We tutor children who are not in school, those who are home- schooled and those who have newly arrived and can’t get into a school.
“We also get children whose English isn’t good enough to attend school, so we tutor them until they are good enough to get in.
“We have one client who has been with us from year two to year eight. It’s not that he needs tutoring to catch up but a lot of parents like to invest in tutoring in the same way you might invest in tennis coaching or swimming lessons.”
Anne Morris, the centre’s director of educational programmes, says the culture of tutoring has certainly changed in the UAE since she first began teaching here in 1999.
“For some a tutor can be rather like having a maid,” says Ms Morris. “We get a lot of mums who have been referred by a friend and want their children to have the same recognition. That’s what tutoring does – it pushes children on.”
However, the main reason primary-age children attend Power Tutoring is to be coached for secondary school entrance exams.
And the competition can be tough. Earlier this month 444 children sat the entrance exam for 120 places at Dubai College.
Among them was 10-year-old Raphael Fabre from France, who started having sessions at Power Tutoring in September to help him pass the test.
“My mum and dad wanted me to prepare for the entrance exams. My year five report wasn’t very good and I really wanted to improve on my maths and my language,” he says.
“I hope I get into Dubai College but my dad said I mustn’t get my hopes too high because it’s very hard to get in.
“But having tutoring has helped. There was an algebra question in the test and because I’m in an International Baccalaurate curriculum I would not have learnt algebra until the end of the year, whereas in the English curriculum you learn it earlier. So I learnt it here instead.”
The benefits of hiring a tutor is certainly something Liz Fenwick, an American author and mother-of-three, can testify to.
A Dubai resident on and off since 2007, Mrs Fenwick hired a tutor for her 13-year-old daughter Sasha when she was nine.
“She wasn’t happy with how she was doing in maths so I suggested tutoring and she jumped at it,” she says.“She was lacking in confidence and the way she was taught maths was not how I was taught maths so I was struggling.”
“It wasn’t that she was bad at maths. She needed to be shown that she could do this and learn in a way that worked with her brain.”
Sasha, who now attends boarding school in the UK, had two years of tutoring in Dubai and has not needed any tutoring since, something Mrs Fenwick partly blames on the school here.
“In her last year here she had three different teachers in one year,” she says. Teachers here are normally the spouse trailing with another job. It’s a factor with expat life but that doesn’t create a continuity for students.”
Dr Alghorani says parents need to think carefully before they engage a tutor.
“The most common complaint I hear from students is that it’s way too much,” he says.
“They say ‘life is not only textbooks and we need to play’.”
But for Francoise Collet, having a tutor has reduced the hours she spends helping her daughter with schoolwork from six to two.
"When you have to teach your child, it increases the stress and stress means you lose your patience and you shout," she says.
"The fact that you don't have that on your shoulders means your communication is better."