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Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

During after-work drinks this week, I commiserated with a colleague over the costs of back-to-school season. Her expenses go beyond school supplies and new clothes. She's enrolled her five-year-old son, entering senior kindergarten, in an extra-curricular reading program at tutoring school Oxford Learning Centre.

"They're expected to read by the time they go into grade one," she said, "and I don't want him to fall behind."

It seems that tutoring is the unspoken cost of the school-age years. There is often a stigma still attached to the notion that our children may need extra help learning. Yet, parents of kids that aren't thriving in the classroom, or even parents that simply want to give their offspring a head start, are turning in droves to tutoring schools and private tutors.

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The tutoring industry has become a big business. It generates $4-billion in annual revenues in North America. Increasingly, those revenues are driven by franchise companies such as Oxford Learning Centre, Kumon, and Sylvan Learning Centre, who collectively have hundreds of sites across Canada.

Extra help doesn't come cheap. Oxford Learning Centre's "Little Readers" program, for children aged three to six, charges $275 per month for two sessions a week, along with a $150 registration fee. The cost rises for older kids. For a child in grades one through eight, two after-school sessions a week will set you back $352 per month, plus a $150 assessment fee.

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Hiring a personal tutor for one-on-one attention is even more expensive. Hourly rates for homework help typically ranging from $40 to $100 per hour, depending on the child's age and the subject.

Still, parents are more than willing to pay, if they have the means.

A 2007 survey by the Canadian Council on Learning found that 33 per cent of parents have hired a tutor for their school-age kids. The study revealed that many more parents would hire tutors if they could afford the expense.

If you're looking for a more thrifty option, consider online tutoring. Over the past few years, recognizing a need in the market, hundreds of e-tutors have opened their virtual doors. Many of them, such as TutorVista.com, use a pool of teachers in India to tutor North American children. Yes, even education is outsourcing overseas labour. Using a virtual whiteboard and instant messaging, students at TutorVista.com can log in anytime of day for one-on-one help. Unlimited sessions cost $99 (U.S.) per month or $34.99 per week.

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Canadian online tutor Myetutor.ca operates along a similar concept, but teachers communicate with students via internet phone service Skype. Math and physics tutoring starts for students in grade four and costs $20 (Canadian) per hour.

If your child is too young for online tutoring, or if you prefer tutors to be live and in-person, consider hiring an older high school or university student. Their hourly wage will be lower than that of a professional tutor. You could also use a directory such as Find A Tutor Canada to locate a tutor close to home and try to negotiate a more manageable fee structure.

Some may argue that parents should take more responsibility for helping their own children with homework. In an ideal world, I would agree. But, as my colleague candidly pointed out, her active son won't let her read him a book, yet sits still for the tutor.

Also, in a two-income household, such as my own, demanding work schedules already compete with home time. Add the stress of homework with a child that needs extra help, and a tutor can become a lifeline for your family.

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