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parents and education

Colin McMahon, founder of The Learning Curve Tutoring and Educational Services in Ontario, helps Grade 10 student Avondale Nixon with math at her family’s dining room table in Toronto.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Every Sunday Victoria Leonard has a date – with a math tutor.

The 15-year-old Grade 10 student isn't failing. She has a decent A- average, and last year made the honour roll at Oakville Trafalgar High School in Ontario.

But high marks won't necessarily put her ahead of the pack once high school is over, which is why, once a week, she meets with a private tutor, at a cost of $40 an hour, to boost her grades.

"Competition is fierce to get into a good university," says her mother, Christine Leonard. "An 80-per-cent average just doesn't cut it any more."

Tutoring to advance a student's grades, even when those grades are already high, is a growing trend, especially among those who can afford the private one-on-one educational service.

While some Canadian universities post minimum entrance grade requirements of about 70 per cent, depending on the program, others require higher marks. But regardless of posted minimums, students across Canada are increasingly competing with fellow applicants who have much higher marks.

The average grade of high-school students entering universities was 85 per cent in 2012, according to data from 48 universities published in the 2014 Maclean's University Rankings. Currently, some of Canada's top universities are posting minimum averages in the 90s for students wanting to enroll in specialized programs, and for a chance at a bursary and other monetary incentives.

At the University of Toronto, for instance, a 92-per-cent average will give a student an entrance scholarship to offset the cost of tuition, which today is about $6,000 a year for Arts and Science students, before fees and other costs.

To parents, university is an expensive venture that makes the cost of private tutoring, averaging about $2,000 a year, worth the investment if it means their offspring will get into the program of their choice.

"What we're seeing over the past 10 years is a dramatic increase in the level of grades required to get into colleges and universities," says Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. "You're going to see parents doing everything they can to increase marks, and paying for tutors is one way of doing it." Exactly how much they are paying is hard to say.

Private tutoring operates in an unregulated market, unrecorded by government data collection methods, according to a 2003 study on private tutoring by Janice Aurini and Scott Davies at McMaster University.

But a few groups have tracked parts of this market in recent years.

In 2013, the Toronto District School Board released data to Global News that showed tutoring in Canada's largest city grew 60 per cent during a five-year period ending in 2011.

The TDSB study follows another conducted in 2007 by the Canadian Council on Learning, which has since closed its doors. It said that one-third of Canadian parents with offspring aged 5 to 24 hired a private tutor or a tutoring company.

The same report suggested that wealthier families were more likely to hire tutors, as were families who spoke neither English nor French at home. One of the reasons cited was that parents are worried about schools not meeting their expectations.

Parents sometimes start accessing private tutoring services in their children's early years.

For instance, Desmond Jordan, who runs a group of Ontario tutoring centres, says that the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario has resulted in a sharp increase in demand for tutoring in beginning reading skills. Jordan is executive director of the Oakville, Hamilton, Burlington and Mississauga franchises of tutoring chain Sylvan Learning.

Math is the most popular tutoring request, followed closely by English, says Colin McMahon, founder of the Learning Curve Tutoring and Educational Services company in Toronto, Ottawa and Durham region.

While there is no conclusive evidence on whether tutoring is effective, partly because of the wide variety of tutors and students involved, people involved in tutoring say there may be a variety of benefits. One of these is organizational skills, McMahon says.

"More and more parents are calling up because their kids don't know how to meet a deadline. They don't know how to take notes."

But the downside is that the service is generally expensive, available only to those who can afford it, and may be leading to the creation of a two-tier education system.

"The global tutoring market is on track to surpass $100-billion (U.S.) by 2018, which will only exacerbate this trend towards a gap between the educational haves and have-nots," says Brian Stewart, a former public high-school teacher turned test-prep author whose U.S.-based global tutoring and consulting company, BWS Education Consulting, tutors students world wide, including Canadians on Skype.

"Parents who have the resources to provide this type of instruction for their kids will give their children an advantage over students who must settle for a one-size-fits all approach," Stewart says.

Some Canadian high schools, among them Toronto's Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, offer free after-school math clinics and tutoring by older students as a way of making extra academic help available to all students, regardless of income.

A number of free self-help tutoring services, such as,, as well as tutorials on, are also available on the Internet.

But such public-access services appear geared at students who are motivated, disciplined and willing to learn on their own.

"In my day having a tutor was a taboo thing, and you'd never admit to having one," McMahon says.

"But now a tutor is just another one of your peeps."

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