“Private tuition can be harmful to the long-term academic prospects of children, a leading London headteacher warned today.” A recent article in the British press employed the usual tone of melodrama and foreboding that is standard for most reporting on educational issues, especially those which focus on parental anxiety and individual choices.
The article – of course – lacks nuance; the quoted head teacher of South Hampstead High School has told me personally that “the debate is not binary” and even that she has recommended tutoring on some occasions, a balance to her position somewhat absent in the histrionic tone of the article in which she is quoted. However, she is disquieted by the increasing numbers seeking private tuition, and advocates it only in extremis, when a child is struggling to such a degree that the situation is truly desperate. When I suggested that private tutoring can also provide stretch and challenge, she replied “we provide plenty of this at school,” her words revealing an unease that is familiar to me and which I hope to explore in this post.
Part of the rhetoric of teaching – whether in a mainstream comprehensive like mine or a selective independent school like South Hampstead – is that anything and everything is possible. We are expected to subscribe to this mantra, and to suggest otherwise is to admit that you are willing to let the children down – not a comfortable position for any of us. We strive for outstanding practice in every lesson, and every child must make the relevant progress and have his or her particular needs fulfilled.
We must provide stretch and challenge or scaffolding and support as appropriate; every lesson must be tailored to the diverse needs of each individual member of the class and every lesson must be reflected upon and refined. How did each child perform? Did they grasp the key concepts? Did they make the relevant progress? Were the most able sufficiently challenged? What areas of weakness need to be addressed next time? This process must be repeated numerous times a day, every day of the week. And we try. Oh, how we try. But the reality is that sometimes it’s not enough.
As a result of the high expectations that are placed upon us, it is easy for teachers to feel threatened by the very existence of private tuition. I have experienced this myself only recently, when I watched a boy who was struggling in my subject transform his performance as a direct result of working with a private tutor. It was a truly humbling process to witness, and I don’t deny that for a short while I felt rather dismal about my own apparent failure as his classroom teacher. But as a private tutor, I have seen the game from the other side of the fence. I know that what I can do with a child in a regular series of bespoke one-to-one sessions bears little or no resemblance to what I can achieve in the mainstream classroom. I pride myself on being pretty good at my job: my results are excellent, I have never been rated less than “Good” in almost 20 years in the state sector, and I know that I am valued immensely by a school I feel lucky to work in. But I am not a magician, and there are limits to what I can achieve in the classroom.
As a private tutor, everything I do is in direct response to one individual’s needs. The key to outstanding private tuition is developing the ability to read each person closely; in a one-to-one session, I can watch for every tiny non-verbal cue that a child is giving: every shift in the chair, every bite of the lip, every furrow of the brow. Of course, I often notice these signs in the classroom too, and I endeavour to pay close attention to those individuals who are expressing some puzzlement. But how often must I miss such nuances, due to the sheer number of faces in front of me? And every missed moment is another tiny chink in that student’s progress, another fissure in the delicate and ever-evolving construction of knowledge and understanding. If I thought too much about it, I would go mad.
In a large class, children must wait – an individual query may not be relevant to the whole class, and some students, especially in the younger years, seek to reassure themselves by querying what you have said before your sentence is barely out of your mouth; this desire to ask questions at every stage of an explanation can ruin the flow of a lesson for the majority, and students must learn to save their questions for later, when a teacher is circulating the room. We try then to address each individual query and pay personal attention to every child, indeed the importance of this is one of the things that makes teaching both challenging and rewarding. But the rules are reversed in private tutoring, when a tutor can actively encourage a child to interrupt as many times as they wish; as a result, the lesson is truly tailored to the individual and every potential misunderstanding is addressed – simply impossible in the mainstream classroom, however hard we might try.
I am not unsympathetic to those educationalists who have concerns about private tutoring. In stark contrast to the case of my student whose progress was transformed as a result of tuition, I have also come across cases when a child has been thoroughly let down by a tutor with no professional experience. Many of those advertising at the more affordable end of the scale are university students – I would willingly have tutored for £10-15 an hour as an undergraduate – and some of them do an excellent job. However, such tutors have no experience of the ever-changing expectations that children are working towards; if you are simply looking for someone to de-mystify a subject then this kind of tutor can work very well, but if you are looking for your child to make progress towards a specific educational goal or to excel in a particular set of examinations, you’re taking quite a risk in paying someone who is not an expert in this process.
Yet the main objection against private tuition raised by the quoted head teacher is not a lack of professionalism on the part of some tutors; rather, it seems to touch on the wider issue of so-called “helicopter parenting” and a tendency to problem-solve on behalf of our children. In truth, no matter how much a parent might wish it to be so, private tutoring is not a magic solution; it is merely an opportunity, with which the student has to engage in order to progress. A few will rock up confidently with a myriad of questions, but the vast majority have spent so long hiding at the back or trying to bluff their way in a subject they are struggling to understand that it takes some time to strip away their defences and encourage them to participate without fear.
The tutees that come to me are often in the very state of despair that the quoted head teacher cites as appropriate for tutoring, when they have “exhausted all other options.” More than one parent has described the dreadful bouts of gut-wrenching anxiety and floods of tears as a child finds themselves getting further and further behind their peers. My subject (Latin) is obscure, and few parents are blessed with the knowledge to help their child through the quagmire of this difficult and unforgiving discipline; so they can watch in despair while their child suffers, or they can find a compassionate and competent professional to provide the right kind of support for them. As one parent put it to me, “you have turned dislike and dismay into enjoyment and enthusiasm.” Sounds like something worth paying for.
This piece was originally published in September 2017 in Quillette Magazine.