A warning from the chalkface

Hiring a tutor can feel like a leap of faith. Tutoring is an entirely unregulated industry and anyone can set themselves up as a tutor. It is my personal belief that the best professional tutors are also experienced teachers and I am disquieted by the number of people in the industry that have very little or even no classroom experience. This is not the orthodoxy, as a growing number of tutors seem alarmingly anti-establishment and – perhaps most upsettingly – anti-classrooom teachers.

To illustrate the kind of risk that I believe people are taking when they employ a tutor who has not worked as a classroom teacher, I wish to share the story of a student in the school I used to work in. It is perhaps the worst case I have personally come across of a family being let down at the hands of an unqualified, inexperienced and frankly unprofessional tutor. I do not say these things lightly. Sometimes frankness is required. I share this story in the hope that people will think carefully before they employ someone with no experience of the classroom and the examination process. The story I am about to relate is extreme, but it is true and it illustrates the risk you are taking when you employ an inexperienced tutor. It involves a girl I used to teach. I shall call her Laura.

At the end of Year 9, Laura opted not to continue with Latin to GCSE within the school options system. However, her mother decided that she would like Laura to pursue the subject outside of school through private tuition. Sadly, Laura’s mother did not seek my professional advice, and the first I was made aware of the situation was when the child came to see me in the January of her final year (Year 11) and asked if she could sit the Latin Mock examination along with my students. She explained that she had been receiving private tuition over the last two years and hoped to sit the exams that Summer.

My initial response was that it was absolutely fine for her to sit the Mock that I had written, but I explained that there would be a problem if she had studied different texts from the ones that my students had been working on.

She looked at me blankly.


“Yes,” I said, “the verse and prose literature that you have studied. Which texts have you covered? The specification offers a choice, so it depends which ones your tutor has selected. My examination will only be suitable for you if your tutor has chosen the same options as the ones I have been teaching.”

Well. To cut a long story short, it quickly became apparent that Laura had not studied any texts or indeed any source material. This meant that she had not covered around 50% of the examination material. When I pressed further, it transpired that she also had not been given the required vocabulary list of around 450 words to learn.

I was aghast.

I contacted the girl’s mother and upon further investigation it turned out that the child had not even been entered for the exam, her mother blissfully unaware that this is a formal process that must be done (and indeed paid for) well in advance – it doesn’t just happen by magic. That’s how schools make it feel, because they do it all for you: it is one person’s full-time job to manage the examinations entry process for all the students in a large school.

It took me some considerable time to explain that not only was it quite likely already too late for her child to be entered for the examinations that year, it would also be absolutely impossible for her to sit the three compulsory written papers and perform well in them given her lack of formal preparation; even giving the tutor the benefit of the doubt that she had taught the grammar well (although since she had not read the specification, I fail to see how she knew which aspects of grammar she was required to teach), the child did not know the required vocabulary and the literature papers would be a complete mystery to her.

Remarkably, the child’s mother defended the private tutor hotly, insisting that she was happy with the service that the tutor had provided. I pointed out that this tutor had taken her money, claimed to be preparing her daughter for a series of examinations that she knew frankly nothing about and had failed to advise her on the entry process. Still, Laura’s mother defended her. “She’s a good woman” she kept saying. That may well be so. However, she clearly had no idea about what was required of her as a professional.

Should a parent wish to pay for a child to be tutored in preparation for a public examination, it is essential that the tutor be an expert in that examination. My advice to parents would be to ask searching questions of the tutor – how many cohorts have they seen through that particular examination? What are their results like? What training have they received? This last point is one that is overlooked even by some classroom teachers, many of whom advise their classes on “what the examiner wants” when they have neither worked as an examiner nor attended any courses run by them – so this is something to ask about. Attending such courses and/or working as an examiner demystifies the examination process and gives teachers concrete guidance on what the examiners require from students.

A tutor should pride themself on their professional experience and continued professional development. This does not just mean being up to date on safeguarding (essential though that is). It means having a working and ever-evolving knowledge of your subject and the way it is examined. This comes at a price, and once a teacher has left the classroom it is one that they must be prepared to fund for themselves as and when necessary. So ask any prospective tutor what relevant training they have done: their answer may surprise you.

Photo by Nick Youngson

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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