An Unfair Advantage

Extra-curricular tutoring is criticised for giving some students an unfair upper hand. Arabella Close looks at the role of race in the debate on tutoring and advantage.

Extra-curricular tutoring is criticised for giving some students an unfair upper hand. Arabella Close looks at the role of race in the debate on tutoring and advantage.

I had to visit a podiatrist the other week and while he was rubbing a plaster cast onto my feet he asked me what I was doing on the weekend. When I told him I worked at a tutoring college and was going to spend 8 hours on a Sunday teaching writing to children, I felt the whole tone of the conversation change. He became wary of what he was saying. To him, I clearly represented a cog in a problem, yet he felt uncomfortable in explicitly labelling what that problem was.

This has happened to me many, many times before. While this man with my feet in his hands was one of the more delicate examples, what all these conversations boil down to is race and the perception that extra-curricular tutoring is giving ‘Asian’ (a blanket term that seems to be applied to all non-white children in tutoring) students an unfair advantage over their ‘Anglo’ peers.

These views have been pulled apart by people of colour many times before. As a white Australian, my criticism of racism should be secondary to the culturally and linguistically diverse families whose voices these views seek to discount. I do work in one of these tutoring colleges, however, where the white Australian population would be under 15%, and perhaps can add something to the tail end of these existing arguments.

The kind of race-based discriminations made about adults seem especially confounding at a tutoring school. The children that I teach, whether they are students of colour or white, are all kids. They all delight, charm, impress, exhaust and undermine me. They all can be erudite, stroppy, insightful and inattentive. I am struck so often at work by how children have this strange rubberiness to them and no matter what mould you might try to push them into they keep bursting back into a general, uniform kid-shape.

Sometimes these children don’t want to be there, but for many of them it is a social activity – their friends are there too and they get to be mucky kids together.  Sometimes the work they do involves rote learning. However, the majority of the time it does not. The work is creative, analytical and tangential. Sometimes the work these children do at tutoring colleges will help them get into selective high schools and gain scholarships to private schools. However, more often than not the work they do will simply help lessen, by some very small amount, the vast gap in privilege many of these children experience as non-white people in Australia.

The criticism levelled on tutoring stems in part from its ostensibly quantifiable benefit. It can be measured in hours and marks and dollars. However, if you are the child of parents who are white, whose first language is English and who have studied a Western syllabus you enjoy a privilege that being unquantifiable does little to diminish.

You will always have the upper hand in a school syllabus built around Western texts and events that your parents or other family members have probably studied and can be an invaluable resource on. If you speak English at home you will be at an advantage in scholarship interviews. Later down the track your skin colour, your name, your accent will never hinder your job prospects.

To refer to tutoring as “unfair” is to completely ignore the “unfairness” of systemic racism and classism that no amount of extra homework is going to dismantle. Regardless of whether these students have families who have been in Australia longer than their white classmates, the processes of othering and racialisation will ensure that whatever advantage extra-curricular tutoring provides, will do little to stem the racial inequality of modern Australia.

I do not mean to suggest that there should not be a serious review of the focus in NSW schools on testing and ranking students. There is a very valuable discussion to be had about the state of public education. There is a discussion to be had about the increased focus on testable intelligence, the ethics of selective education and the consequences of pulling the academically gifted out of mainstream schools.

And while a lot of these discussions are nominally gestured at by people like my podiatrist they continue to completely miss the point and to propagate a demonisation of non-white Australians by making the discussion about race.

Filed under:
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