Are “Super-Tutors” Reshaping EFL?

SUPER TUTORS

By: Jacob Williams

Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of private tutors, both globally and the UK. It remains mostly an unregulated industry in most countries, even as the Sutton Trust has estimated the market to be worth up to £6bn annually in the UK alone. Meanwhile, in China, it is thought that up to 93% of parents hire tutors for their children.

The result is a rising demand from families who may have once felt entitled to send children to the best institutions, and a rising ability to pay enormous fees from clients all over the world to tutors in any country.

This brings us to so-called “super-tutors.” These individuals, who command very high hourly rates (sometimes over £200 per hour), are the tip of the unmonitored private tutoring iceberg. Anthony Fok in Singapore, for example, makes over $1m a year teaching mainly A-Level Economics to the offspring of highly competitive parents. Meanwhile, Adam Caller, who matches super-wealthy clients with live-in tutors on large six-figure salaries, has been featured on the BBC as an expert on the elite tuition industry, and “super-tutor” is even the title of a book by professional tutor Joe Norman.

How is all this affecting EFL? The phenomenon of “super-tutors” is driven by globalization, the rise of emerging economies, and the growth of competition at the top of the education industry. At the same time, as the global rich become unmoored from national roots, schools and universities have come under increasing pressure to be more genuinely meritocratic. The result is a rising demand from families who may have once felt entitled to send children to the best institutions, and a rising ability to pay enormous fees from clients all over the world to tutors in any country.

EFL, of course, has always been international. To some degree, the top-end of the EFL market already exhibits the ultra-competitive qualities of the elite tuition industry. One-on-one lessons at the London School of English, for example, will set you back by £80 an hour, which is not far off the lower end of the “super” bracket.

But what about the “super-super” category—people like Matthew Larriva, who earns $600 per hour helping California high-schoolers cram for SAT and ACT exams? Is there a parallel in EFL, or will there be? At this level, private tutoring is either hyper-specialized or hyper-personal or both.

it is common sense that the service will have an enormous price-tag, for the same reasons lawyers dealing with cases on which millions of dollars hinge also make a killing.

The extreme rates are commanded by tutors who have either acquired a stellar reputation for producing measurable results in a narrow area of expertise—a specific test, a specific subject, or admission to a specific set of schools. If purchasing such a service can make the greatest possible difference between success and failure in an exam on which a student’s entire life (and life-time of earnings) depends, it is common sense that the service will have an enormous price-tag, for the same reasons lawyers dealing with cases on which millions of dollars hinge also make a killing.

EFL teaching is less likely to go this way because there are fewer choke-points where a specific test score makes such a dramatic marginal difference to one’s life. While reaching a certain level in IELTS is required for UK university courses, the score is a necessary but not sufficient condition for admission. After reaching a certain good-to-intermediate level of English, it is likely to be other qualifications that matter most. In EFL, the difference between the 90th and the 99th percentile often means relatively little.

In EFL, the difference between the 90th and the 99th percentile often means relatively little.


For other top tutors, the term “mentor” would be a better description. In this marketplace, individuals accompany ultra-high-net-worth families around the world, providing a holistic education as an alternative to conventional schooling. Adam Caller, for instance, frequently has clients who expect tutors to be—literally—all-singing and all-dancing, able to coach pupils in music, art, sport, and languages as well as academic subjects. This is not a service in any direct competition with specialized EFL teaching.
 

This is the business model of Anthony Fok, and also of Hong Kong’s Lam Yat-yan, who turned down an $11m job offer from a rival school in 2016

However, there is a third type of “super-tutor.” In Asia, the term often refers to teachers who provide group classes at high but (relatively) affordable fees to the merely well-heeled, making their profit from the numbers as well as the individual rates. This is the business model of Anthony Fok, and also of Hong Kong’s Lam Yat-yan, who turned down an $11m job offer from a rival school in 2016. This system is not alien to that already used by some of the top EFL schools.

The potential for disruption, however, is in the move online, especially in servicing emerging markets like China. Some estimates suggest a staggering 15% of household income in China is spent on after-school tutoring, while the country has only a few tens of thousands of native English teachers. Over the last five years, a range of companies has developed online platforms to take advantage of this gap.

A space to watch, therefore, is the combination of high-level group tutoring with remote learning. With most Chinese households having only recently if at all, acquired a broadband connection, this sector of the industry is still in its infancy, so many important trends may not yet be apparent. But an online, EFL-specialist Anthony Fok could emerge to drastically reshape the trade to most competitive levels.

We should acknowledge that English teaching is about to be disrupted

How, then, can teachers take advantage of this? I have two suggestions. First, we should aggressively build teaching relationships in China and other emerging markets. Agencies and platforms provide a valuable service, but often take an unfair cut of revenues. VIPKid, an English-learning platform matching Chinese children with teachers in the USA, for example, often charges parents around $80 per hour but pays tutors only about a quarter of that. That kind of commission is a market failure, created by a lack of direct communication between teachers and students. Bridging this gap requires hard work but is well worth it.

Second, English teachers can recognize that our profession is no longer, if ever was, insulated from the gig economy. This creates great opportunities: flexible working hours, improved lifestyles, and the potential for genuine autonomy. It also imposes demands—above all, a move to ever-more personalized and bespoke service. We should acknowledge that English teaching is about to be disrupted, and prepare now to ensure it is a disruption from which teachers, and not just the privileged minority of families able to afford “super-tutors,” benefit.