Our Q&A with the founder of tutoring agency Equal Education.
Narrowing the education gap in the UK is an issue that is coming increasingly to the forefront of the private tutoring industry. One man who is taking positive steps to making a difference in UK education is Paul Singh, co-founder of Equal Education, a tutoring organisation that works with children in social care. In our Q&A, Paul tells of his experiences of working in the education industry in the UK and shares his vision for the future of private tutoring.
What inspired you to start Equal Education?
It was a desire to do something different and unconventional that spurred me to team up with an old friend to co-found EE (Equal Education). Prior to entering the field of education, I worked as a chemical engineer, consulting and developing long-term innovations for Unilever’s European ice cream division.
It was in their R&D department when I was first became acquainted with a corporate association that had social and environmental aims. After deciding to switch to teaching, I worked in a school with a disproportionate demographic on free school meals. In the evenings I would privately tutor in affluent parts of London. I felt many of the children I tutored didn’t require the amount of tuition that was being requested, and many of the children at school had raw talent and parents who were unable to push their children academically.
This is a massive social problem and all the problem solving work I did as an engineer certainly came in useful. I was inspired to take my skills of reducing carbon emissions for billions of tonnes of Walls Ice Cream and apply it to the education inequality that currently exists in society.
This got me thinking that education is a logistics and process problem. We have resources (highly capable tutors) and a diverse range of children. However, too much of the resource is being concentrated on one slice of the demographic (for numerous reasons). I decided I would build a tuition service with a twist that:
- Only works with those who statistically, have the least attainment and achievement
- Is a self-sustaining business that has other types of profit (not just money)
Equal education is somewhat unique in the private tutoring sphere in that you only work with schools and virtual schools. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
As mentioned, I wanted to work with those who are statistically the least performing children in our current education system. Currently, of the 100,000 children in care in the UK, only 10-15% of them are predicted to achieve 5A*-C GCSEs. The most startling statistic I came across is that in 2010, 27% of the adult prison population had been in care in one point of their childhood. So I work with people who are responsible for those who are currently in the care system.
It takes a certain type of tutor to work with looked after children. What qualities do you look for in a tutor and what does your recruitment process involve?
Yes that’s an understatement! Working with children in care can be a complete world away from traditional private tutoring. We have children who quite energetically do their best to avoid tuition at all costs. A significant number of children we work with who are secondary school age lack basic reading and writing skills. Many are traumatised and find it difficult to build relationships with their tutors.
I look for tutors who genuinely care for children and are committed to raising their educational outcomes against the odds, tutors who are not going to take no for an answer and persevere with young people who do their best to avoid education. As many of the children we work with have been let down so much, they feel unworthy and would rather give up.
Our tutors have an opportunity to play a significant role in a child’s life. They have a responsible adult in their life who can be an education champion for them.
You mention on your website that you also work closely with social workers, can you tell us a bit more about this.
When we first started in the industry, we were really inspired by the people on the ground, including social workers. Education is one component in a child’s life and whilst it's separate, it's still interlinked to all other aspects of their life too. We need to be aware of their care plans, their history and their current foster placements. All of these things have an impact on their education.
My background in engineering taught me the importance of having as much relevant information as possible in order to make informed decisions that will have the most impact. Collecting the right information from all our stakeholders allows Equal Education to make tailored decisions to improve outcomes.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in setting up your tutoring agency as a social enterprise?
Financing has been a challenge, as equal education is a social enterprise. Equal Education doesn’t operate to increase value for shareholder or investors, so this ruled out traditional forms of seeking finance to grow the service. Other than this, I would say that it has been challenging learning to work with the care sector. The social care sector is a phenomenally hard-working and pressured sector and has made several adjustments to its service, so that we can add value from our tutoring.
Which of your successes with Equal Education are you most proud of?
Creating a team of like-minded people who work hard everyday to push young people who would otherwise be left behind. The tutors are incredible and tirelessly rise meet the challenges of developing new ways to engage the young people they work with.
I'm also feel proud every time I hear feedback about young people who say mainstream education didn’t work for them. This really spurs me to push and develop Equal Education further.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the private tuition industry recently about narrowing the education gap. How do you see Equal Education’s role in closing this divide?
Tuition is a powerful intervention and uses a formidable asset to deliver its purpose, people. I firmly believe our challenges in society, business and the environment are met and conquered once we have the right number of committed people working together on it.
My vision is to connect like-minded people with uninspired and disenfranchised young people in care.
How, in your opinion, can others in the private tutoring industry help narrow the education gap?
The private tutoring industry has the privilege of having a number of bright, committed and energetic people who are passionate about education. Through collaboration, a network of organisations will be able to achieve something far greater and larger than one can do alone. Collaboration allows us to capitalise on our biggest strength, which is diversity and different perspectives. Social problems are complex and are without a sole or single solution, hence the need for diversity and variety in approach.
Are there any projects or developments happening in your agency at the moment that you’d like to share?
We have developed a partners program to find young people in care opportunities beyond compulsory education. We see education as a means to aid finding a fulfilling career. We piloted a Youth Start Up Weekend in collaboration with Google, the Global Impact Hub Network, Youtube and Paypal. The idea behind the weekend was to give young people a hands-on experience of turning a scribble on a piece of paper into a viable and sustainable business.
We are also developing a program to encourage care leavers to join us and become Equal Education tutors to champion education for those currently in care.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing a venture similar to yours?
The biggest piece of advice I’d give is to value the people working hard everyday on the front-line. I have developed an incredible amount of respect for those who in work in social services. It’s vitally important to understand their roles and responsibilities and to aid them in delivering care for near 100,000 people in the UK. I would also like to take personal responsibility, as we are all responsible for our social problems as a community.
What do you think the future holds for the private tuition industry and education in the UK in general?
Technology, like with other industries is beginning to disrupt education. The process has already began with Youtube delivering 1000s of hours of educational content. You have fantastic organisations like the Khan Academy offering plenty of material for free and respected universities like MIT are now providing free online classes.
Current classroom sizes are unsustainable and the new free school movement will be bringing significant changes to education in the UK.
I'd like to ask anyone who has an interest in providing equal education to children in care to get in touch and share their opinions.
You can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 3078 7845.