The headmaster of a leading prep school has described private tutoring as a “hideous concept” that can undermine education.  Ben Thomas, Headmaster of Thomas’s, Battersea, said that there was “far too much” tutoring in London. “I’ve got a real anxiety about tutoring,” he added. “It’s unregulated and unproven. It devours children’s time when they should be having a childhood.”

Children as young as 2 are being privately tutored to secure places at top London prep schools, including the group of four Thomas’s schools.

The topic was raised recently by the Girls’ Schools Association. Research conducted by the organisation indicated that head teachers of senior schools are also increasingly irritated by the practice of children being tutored for school admission. “Heads of senior schools and prep schools discourage this practice, as it masks the child’s innate abilities and is of no help to the child if they are tutored into a school for which they are not, in the long run, suitable,” said the study.

The issue is causing Mr Thomas so much concern that he plans to host a debate for parents and teachers on the topic. The motion will be: “This house believes that tutoring undermines education” — a title which Mr Thomas admitted was deliberately provocative.

“I always said that if ever I heard that tutoring agencies were starting to work on three-year-olds for our entrances, I would give up,” he said. “And it is now looking like I’m going to have to give up. Well, I’m not going to give up; I despair. The bottom line is, I despair.

“It is driven by a fear of missing out. What it leads to is this rise and rise and rise of tutoring. On the surface of it, it would seem to be a no-brainer that one-to-one tutoring is going to help a child. But there are lots of subtle reasons why that is wrong.

“Firstly, it’s children’s time. We set an enormous amount of homework, and children’s days are incredibly busy. There shouldn’t be time in the week for them to be having two hours of tuition. Their childhood is being swallowed up.

“More subtly, it can undermine a child’s learning in the classroom because they tend to think, ‘I don’t need to listen to my teacher, I’ll ask the tutor when I get home’ .”

“I’d like to bring all this out into the open, because the problem is it all goes on slightly behind the scenes. Parents get their children tutored but they don’t tell the school. They have this sense that the school doesn’t really approve and they’d rather keep it quiet, but of course the children all come and tell us they’re being tutored.”

Clarissa Farr, High Mistress at St Paul’s Girls’ School, said: “We are seeing an increase in tutoring and therefore we now ask parents when they apply to declare what tutoring they have provided for their children.

“I am less concerned about the tutoring for admissions to private schools than that which goes on once they are there. I believe that there is a significant industry which trades on insecurity and exam anxiety, sometimes undermining rather than building confidence. There should be a charter which requires all tutors to register with the school any child they tutor attends, so that all parties can work together.”

Gwen Byrom, Headmistress of Loughborough High School, said: “I do have many prospective parents who assume tutoring is a necessary part of the admissions process, despite our best efforts to persuade them otherwise.”

Mr Thomas said that selective schools had added to the problem. “The thought that we’ve created a system where we’ve got three-year-olds being coached to get through an entrance test is fundamentally wrong..”