Mobile madness

Supermarkets are really good at making things go viral these days. Who didn’t love the image of a whole shelf full of wine bottles labelled “office essentials” during the height of PartyGate? They know how to push people’s buttons on social media in order to keep their brand in the spotlight.

One can only assume that the potential to go viral was the purpose of this display, photographed and shared by an MFL teacher called David on Twitter this weekend:

Predictably, and presumably as part of Tesco’s dastardly plan to go viral, EduTwitter went beserk. Huge numbers of us, myself included, were pretty annoyed about the fact that Tesco were depicting a mobile phone as an “essential” for children heading into school. Yet this notion is not an outlier and Tesco certainly did not come up with it on their own; I am reliably informed by multiple friends who are parents that it is now considered to be a “rite of passage” for children to receive a smart phone when they enter secondary school (if their parents haven’t caved in already), so Tesco know what they’re doing here.

There is overhwhelming evidence that mobile phones cause problems in a school environment, which is why so many schools have moved towards banning them in recent years. Many teachers have expressed growing concerns that smart phones pose a significant safeguarding threat and a tool which aids and abets bullying and child-on-child abuse. This is now well-evidenced. Most fundamentally of all however – given that schools are meant to be a place where children learn – the basic problem with smart phones is that they are weapons of mass distraction.

A blogpost by Innerdrive sums up the research evidence on mobile phone usage in schools and it makes for sobering reading. While much of the research focuses on the usefulness of banning phones in a school setting, there is also a great deal of evidence which should give parents serious pause for thought about their child’s usage of devices at home, particularly at night-time. In summary: please don’t let your child have access to their phone after bedtime and please make sure that you have access to everything your child is doing and seeing online and that you check this regularly.

What has puzzled me most in this whole thing is the number of people still willing to defend the notion of children having access to these devices throughout the school day. Unsurprisingly, not very many of them are classroom teachers. They are “educators”, EdTech pushers or – occasionally – much-loved children’s poets. Most teachers have been concerned about children’s usage of smart phones from day one, and those who have defended the notion in the past have in many cases shifted their viewpoint. One of the most irksome arguments used against banning phones in schools is the viewpoint that children must be educated in their usage and that banning them is part of schools being “out of touch” with the modern world. Okay. Apply that argument to sex education: children should be allowed to experiment with sex in school because they need to be taught how to do it responsibly. Apply the argument to alcohol and drug usage: children should be allowed to use alcohol and drugs in school so that we can teach them how to do so responsibly. And so on. Of course students need to be taught about responsible internet usage and the dangers of social media, and believe you me they get this by the bucket-load. But to suggest that in order to learn about the use of smart phones they need to have ready access to these devices in school (as if somehow otherwise they wouldn’t know what we’re talking about?) is laughable.

One of my earliest shows for Teachers’ Talk Radio explored the relationship that teenagers have with their smart phones and my guest, Dr. Kathy Weston from Tooled Up Education, used the phrase “digital hygiene” to summarise the kinds of discussions and agreements that should go on between parents and their child at the point when a child is given one of these devices. It’s important to note where the responsibility lies here: with the parents who, after all, are paying the bill. Of course schools should be addressing mobile phone usage as a part of their PSHE programme, and I cannot imagine there is a school in the land not doing so. But dealing with this issue in schools is a dismal attempt to hang a sheet over a door that a horse has not only bolted through but slammed so hard that the door is off its hinges. In my show I also interviewed Matt Crowley, lead DSL (Designated Safeguarding Lead) in the school in which I was working at the time; the serious safeguarding risks and the systemic damage to a child’s mental health, self-esteem and personal safety which can arise from the use of these devices – in school and beyond – simply cannot be over-emphasised, I’m afraid.

Defenders of the smart phone in schools piont to its “education benefits” and there is no question that there are multiple apps that children can make use of in their learning journey. However, it is a full-time job to micro-manage this kind of usage and that can only be done by a parent or carer. If only we could trust all of our children to make use of their phones to access their Latin vocabulary on Quizlet during break and lunchtimes! In reality, anyone who thinks that’s what they are doing with them is seriously deluded. During the period in which smart phones had become endemic amongst young people when I was working in schools, I knew of numerous cases of children accessing pornography and videos produced by terrorist organisations; I knew of cases in which these devices were used for horrific and systemic bullying, to film teachers and humiliate them on social media, and for children to watch age-inappropriate films and play age-inappropriate games. You name it, I’m afraid they’ve probably done it and done it in school. Is that what people want for their child?

So schools must hold the line and maintain their ban – not that I know of a single one that regrets it – and parents can (I hope) take inspiration from it. These devices are wondrous and I fully admit that I could not live without mine. I first attained a smartphone at the age of around 35, which is probably responsible enough. I cannot tell you how glad I am that they did not exist when I was a child.

My final thought brings me back to my new full-time role, as a professional tutor. It is a discussion I have had to have with numerous parents, advising them to take away a child’s mobile phone while they access my sessions. Working online, it is particularly difficult to spot when a child is distracted by their device, but I can still spot it. Most children find it too difficult to discipline themselves not to look at their phones whilst they’re doing anything (even something they enjoy!) so the odds of them being able to resist it during a tutoring session are vanishingly slim. So take control, which means take the device. They’ll thank you for it one day.

The problem with pronouns in Latin

Latin is a heavily inflected language. Inflection is a process of word formation by which the word is modified according to its grammatical category. For verbs, inflection (called conjugation), means that the ending (and in some instances the stem) of the verb will change according to tense (e.g. present or future), voice (active or passive), person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) or number (singular or plural).

English is different. English relies heavily on pronouns to identify who is performing the action of a verb. For example, let’s take the verb “to warn” in the present tense. To conjugate this English verb, I need to use a series of different pronouns to express whoever is the subject of the verb – there is only one small change (in the 3rd person) to the ending of the verb itself:

1st person singular: I warn
2nd person singular: You (sg) warn
3rd person singular: He/she/it warns
1st person plural: We warn
2nd person plural: You (pl) warn
3rd person plural: They warn

Latin is completely different. Latin has no need of a personal pronoun to express whoever is doing the action of the verb. The same verb in Latin will conjugate as follows:

1st person singular: moneo
2nd person singular: mones
3rd person singular: monet
1st person plural: monemus
2nd person plural: monetis
3rd person plural: monent

One of the most important things for new students of Latin to grasp is this fundamental difference, for it has varied and complex effects upon their ability to read and translate the language competently. To become a confident Latinist, a student must break the habit of reading from left to right and learn to prioritise finding the verb (usually, although not always, at the end of the sentence).

The habit of reading from left to right is extraordinarily difficult to break and students will usually revert to it when under pressure, despite “knowing” their verb endings. For example, a novice will naturally tend to translate the sentence “puellam monemus” as “the girl warns”. But the -mus ending on the verb tells us that it actually means “we warn”, therefore the sentence translates as “we warn the girl”: the fact that the girl is the object, not the subject of the verb, is also something that can be deduced from its case ending, but that too tends to go out of the window when a novice is faced with a sentence such as this – and that’s precisely because we naturally read from left to right. No other reason, really.

It seems to me that the authors of virtually all the Latin reading courses that have made it through the traditional publishing process are either in complete denial about this fundamental difference between English and Latin, or they are utterly deluded in their apparent belief that it really isn’t that difficult for children to let go of the habit of reading from left to right – even though it’s a routine they have been trained into doing habitually from the age of 4 or 5 and is therefore deeply ingrained. Reading from left to right is, for every child – however hesitant a reader – a custom which will have slipped entirely into their unconscious mind; no child picks up a book and starts reading a sentence from the middle or the end.

In my criticism of published reading courses I am thinking in particular of courses such as The Cambridge Latin Course and the much more recently published Suburani, which is so markedly CLC 2.0 that I’m surprised its creators haven’t been sued by Cambridge for plagiarism. Both courses use subject pronouns from the outset (and throughout) as a prop for students to hang their understanding upon. Since pronouns – when used as the subject – appear at the beginning of the sentence, students are actively encouraged to continue with their natural instinct of reading from left to right. This, to be brutally frank, is simply disastrous for their potential as future Latinists.

Here are just a couple of examples from the very first few pages of Suburani (and therefore part of students’ early introduction to reading Latin stories):

ego multum cibum habeo (“I have a lot of food”): what is ego doing there? Why not force students to look at the ending of habeo instead?

tu psitaccum habes (“you have a parrot”): what is tu doing there? Don’t get me started on why the students are learning the Latin for “parrot” in their first few lessons. It may not surprise you to know that it doesn’t come up very often and it’s certainly not a word they will need at GCSE or are likely to need at A level.

ego cibum vendo (“I am selling food”): sigh.

tu amicum habes (“you have a friend”): etc etc. You get the idea.

In all of the above sentences both ego and tu could be removed in order to force students to look at the verb ending. So what are they doing there? It seems to me that they serve no purpose other than to encourage students to read from left to right – excactly the opposite of what they should be doing. This more than anything is my fundamental objection to how courses such as these are designed; I have plenty of other objections too, but this is the one that irks me the most. The authors of these courses are so determined to prove their misguided belief that students will learn how to read Latin via some kind of process of osmosis that they are prepared to lull them into a false sense of security by guiding them to approach Latin sentences in entirely the wrong way. From day one.

In my final few years at the chalkface and as we hurtled into lockdown, I was faced with the prospect of converting all my Latin lessons for online learning and the need to put work on screen. On our return to school I did not have enough text books to go around and was told that they could not be shared between bubbles. Since I had to get all of the stories up onto the screen, this, I decided, was the time to grasp the bull by the horns and edit all the cartoons and the stories in the Cambridge Latin Course to remove all the pronouns and therefore force students to look at the verb endings. I made other fundamental changes too, but this was the one (I believe) which has had the most tangible impact on students’ understanding. One of the most exciting things was the moment when I realised that students were so well-drilled in the process of finding the verb and translating the inflected ending that a strange consequence arose: when first introduced to sentences that had a noun for a subject like “puellae monent” (“the girls warn”), students often translated it as “the girls, they warn” then looked puzzled. Hallelujah. Once it was explained to them (and reiterated several times) that when a sentence contains a subject such as “the girls”, this replaces the pronoun (they) in their translation, there was no problem.

The habit of reading from left to right is so ingrained that it remains something which students need to be reminded of constantly. Once drilled in inflection, however, I find that even with the weakest students, all I need to do is point at the verb ending and they immediately adjust their translation to reflect the verb ending. This gentle process must be repeated again and again. It comes after weeks, months, years of drilling them on their verb endings. All of my students, even the weakest in the class, were able to write down their verb endings from memory and could tell me what they meant. The biggest chaellenge remained breaking that reading habit, but at least my refusal to let them rely on the subject pronoun has given them a fighting chance. By the time students reached the end of Year 8 and the start of Year 9, the habit was all but broken.

That’s how long it takes and that’s how important it is.

Long, lazy summers?

Is a child’s progress affected by the long summer break? Research seems to suggest that it is. Classroom teachers often report that some students struggle in their first few weeks back at school in the autumn. The phenomenon of summer learning loss means that young people lose academic skills and knowledge as a result of the long break.

Photo by Drew Perales, published on Unsplash

One obvious question is to consider why on earth it is that we have such a long summer holiday in the first place. A popular myth is that school children were let out of school over the summer so that they could help with the work in the fields. There seems to be no basis to this widely-held belief (I believed it myself for years).

The UK school system was in fact developed over the course of the 19th century, by which time English farms were rapidly becoming mechanised. Children being required to help with the harvest would only have been relevant to a vanishingly small percentage of the population and besides, anyone who knows anything about farming will tell you that a holiday ending at the start of September is not going to be of much use for bringing in the harvest, the bulk of which tends to happen in early autumn. Whatever the origin of the traditional six weeks off at the height of summer might be, it certainly wasn’t for agrarian purposes.

The educational tradition of a long summer break allowing for travel dates back to the concept of the Grand Tour, which in the 18th century was an important rite of passage for young men graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. The Grand Tour involved visiting classical sites, viewing great works of art and architecture, developing their language skills and cultural knowledge and collecting souvenirs; the whole process was seen as an extension of a young man’s cultural education and an essential part of their initiation into society. While the Grand Tour may seem like something from another era, its principles are still with us – what we do as tourists (visiting museums, buying souvenirs, practising our language skills and trying to absorb local culture) is strongly influenced by the aims of the 18th century; the enduring popularity of Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice as essential destinations for all perhaps betray the fact that we’re not as far from that mindset as we think we are. Given that the educational reform acts of the 19th century were driven in parliament by enlightened educational idealists, it seems plausible that they were (perhaps unwittingly) influenced by the notion that extended time for leisure and travel must be built into the academic timetable. Quite how they thought the working poor were going to access its benefits is anybody’s guess, but maybe they were able to see into the future and predict the advent of cheap flights in the 20th century.

But, I digress. The long summer holiday is here to stay and while there have been numerous calls over the years for the system to be adjusted, nobody has yet come up with a viable suggestion for how to make it happen. So here we are, with all students facing six to eight weeks out of school and the potential learning loss which comes with it.

Let’s look at what the research says about summer learning loss, which has been superbly summarised in a recent blog post by Innerdrive. They point out that according to a recent meta-analysis of 13 studies, which looked at over 50,000 students, children experience an average summer learning loss of around one month. But learning loss over the long summer holiday is neither inevitable nor insurmountable – not all students suffer from it. Therefore by taking some proactive steps and preventative planning, not only can summer learning loss can be minimised but the long stretch away from the classroom can be an opportunity for catch-up.

So what can families do to support their children during the long break? Without a doubt, the most powerful thing they can do is to read to and/or with their child. Children benefit in multiple ways from being read to. Adults reading aloud to children exposes them to material that may currently be beyond their reading age but to which they are able to respond; this helps to increase their vocabulary as well as their general exposure to literature and the wider world.

Many families like to make the most of the holiday to do more educational trips and visits; museums and galleries are much more child-friendly these days and most of them offer interactive workshops free of charge. While such experiences may not appear to support your child’s curriculum directly, you’d be amazed what a difference they make to a child’s general view of the world and their place within it.

There has been a notable increase in demand for summer catch-up sessions this year, and I wonder whether more and more families are taking action to counteract the various ways in which their children have suffered learning loss over the last two to three years. This summer I have several clients who have specifically sought out a tutor for intensive work during the summer holiday and this can certainly be a powerful way to make up for lost time. Parents can help with studies too by supporting their child when it comes to the rote learning; a tutor can do the complex work, demystifying a subject and identifying misconceptions, but the process of memorisation requires frequent repetition: unless you want to pay your tutor to meet with your child every day (or even several times a day!) this is where you come in. Ask your tutor to give you a copy of what your child should be learning and spring frequent quizzing upon them: there really is no substitute for regular, short bursts of retrieval.

Whatever decisions you make for your child during the long summer break, remember that learning in itself is a valuable and enriching process. Too many people remain convinced that children require a “complete break” from learning, as if learning in itself is a strain. The reality is that children are hard-wired to learn; asking them to continue to do a little bit of academic work is not going to ruin their life (although some teenagers may of course claim otherwise …).

Why is tutoring so effective?

As a teacher of 21 years as I have spent my day job teaching groups of 25, 30 or even more. I remain fascinated by the different dynamics of the one-to-one setting in comparison to the mainstream model.

One-to-one tutoring is remarkably powerful compared to what teachers can achieve in the mainstream classroom. As a tutor, I have taken students from the bottom of their class to the top; I have also witnessed other tutors do exactly the same for students who were at the bottom of my own classes. So what is it about what tutors do that can make us so effective?

The overwhelming benefit comes – in my opinion – from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. I usually uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I imagine a student’s developing knowledge of a subject as like a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. This is where tutoring comes in: repointing, replacing and reinforcing the bricks as required.

During the process, a tutor can build a real relationship of trust. Some of these students are so convinced that they’re “rubbish” or simply can’t do it that the revelation that they can understand the concepts in front of them is remarkably powerful. It is not that a tutor necessarily knows their subject and better than the classroom teacher – it is the fact that a tutor has one-to=one time dedicated solely to one child’s needs; it is also that the tutor is (or should be) skilled in identifying and resolving a host of minor misconceptions or gaps in a child’s knowledge that are holding them back. The result can seem like a miracle.

There’s a lot of talk in education that teachers can and should be doing this – that through the right kind of differentiation every single child’s needs can be met by their classroom teacher. The truth? This is absolute nonsense. Of course classroom teachers can’t do that, as anyone who has been one will tell you. Of course children with particular needs can fall behind in the mainstream classroom – those who have missed a large amount of the curriculum through absence, those with SEND, those who have fallen behand for whatever reason and indeed those who are ahead of their peers.

Students who often suffer the most are the quiet ones – they can fall behind without being noticed; yet they can have enormous potential in a subject – again without being noticed. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In tutoring, that’s the moment to pause and rewind: it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only do I not have time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality is I am more than likely to miss the majority of them in the sea of 30 faces.

Like anything, there are of course downsides to the one to one setting as well as benefits. Tutoring can be at risk of lacking direction – you’re potentially not following a set curriculum, rather tailoring each session to the child, and as a result the sessions can seem to lack direction and it can be hard for inexperienced tutors to assess where to go next in terms of content. Similarly, how does one pitch one’s expectations and also how does one manage those of a client who’s paying for our services? Some parents see a tutor as the panacea for everything, not realising that what their child needs is – for example – some basic but regular help with learning their vocabulary. Of course, tutors can and should advise on the methodology, and there is definitely a place for a skilled subject-expert working on vocabulary with a child as part of their time together; but parents sometimes need to invest a little of their own time in their children’s progress too. Vocabulary learning should be done little and often (ideally in short bursts every single day); so unless you can afford to employ a full-time live-in tutor (and believe me, there are some families who actually do so!) then you need to spend some time on supporting your child with their learning.

One of the biggest issues to consider in the one-to -one setting is the risk of cognitive overload, especially in sessions lasting an hour. (I counsel clients against the hour-long model for this very reason). One-to-one tutoring is remarkably intense, both for the student and for the tutor, so we really do need to consider how to pace our sessions to mitigate against this. Cognitive overload is counter-productive and can make students even more anxious and overwhelmed; tutors need to consider how not to over-burden students’ working memory during the session whilst still keeping the level of challenge high.

I have enjoyed my 21 years at the chalkface immensely and my time in the mainstream classroom has gifted me with what I hope will be a long-lasting insight into the problems that my clients are facing when they come to me; it also grants me an insight into the challenges faced by teachers and my aim will always be to support them in the almost insurmountable challenges they face. Tutors should never undermine the classroom teacher, nor use resources that could ruin their lesson: there is nothing worse for a classroom teacher than handing out a resource and then hearing a child pipe up “I did this with my tutor at the weekend!” So don’t do that, please! In an ideal world, a tutor should be able to communicate with the classroom teacher to enable a powerful support network to form around a child who is struggling – I think we are a long way off teachers reaching that level of trust just yet (something I might explored in another post), but I hope to see it happen before the end of my career.

Tutoring Your Own

We have all failed some of our students. The ability to face this without fear or self-loathing is essential to a teacher’s professional development, not to mention sanity. This inescapable truth means it’s generally a bad idea for a teacher to act as a private tutor to a struggling member of his or her own class.

Part of the essential magic that tutoring can provide depends heavily upon the tutor as a voice external to the classroom. Tuition provides a safe environment for children to ask every daft question that would frequently spark a classroom chorus  of “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE DONE THIS?” (probably led by teacher themselves). A tutor provides a fresh voice and a new perspective, a different approach to explaining things and an alternative supply of resources.

My previous school had a strict policy that its members of staff should not tutor anyone within the school, never mind whether they taught the student or not. This policy was somewhat excessive and was certainly far more about protecting “the brand” than it was about pedagogy. I ignored the policy once and once only, when a child who had joined the school late (and therefore missed the boat as far as Latin was concerned) approached me with the request to study Latin; I tutored her (in my classroom after school!) and after two years she had progressed sufficiently to join the GCSE class along with the others; the Head never questioned how she got there and we never told him.

My current school has a far more enlightened approach and I am aware that many members of staff have tutored their own students. I still avoid it, as I believe that any student who is struggling in my class would benefit from a different tutor and I am happy to name alternatives. Two of my students have benefited from an excellent local tutor, who has helped them both beyond measure; I have written before on the advantages of a classroom teacher who can embrace the support of a tutor rather than feel threatened by them, and the fact that I am in touch with this tutor has been immensely helpful to my students.

I have made one exception to my own rule, not for a child who is struggling but for one who is missing my classes due to injury – an entirely different situation. When her mother expressed her openness to the idea of a hiring private tutor to help her daughter keep up, not only was it obvious that I was the perfect person to guide her on what she was missing in my own classes, but I also realised that she lives 5 minutes from my doorstep; in this particular situation, it seemed genuinely daft not to work with her.

Tutoring is an ever-increasing reality for our students, and those of us still part of the traditional chalk face should embrace it with open arms and open eyes. We must be alert to poor tutoring (there is plenty of it out there) and the more receptive we are to the concept the more guidance we can offer parents on what to look for and what to avoid.

Ask me no Questions

Meeting two of my four new Year 7 classes this week, I am once again reminded of a key difference between classroom teaching and one-to-one tutoring: the role of student questions.

The importance of questions from the class has, in my opinion, been over-emphasised in education over the last decade; indeed an ageing display that I really must get round to changing in my classroom celebrates the role of “great questions”, the brain-child of our then Deputy Head.

Questions are indeed important, but in recent years we have at times been told to encourage them to excess. As so often, this move has been driven by specialists in the Humanities, who seem to shape every INSET I have ever sat though. Notions like “there are no foolish questions” and “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” might work to a degree in an RE lesson, but such an approach is frankly disingenuous in many other subjects.

Excessive questions from the floor can truly derail a lesson and this is never more true with Year 7. In my first two lessons this week I have had several children so bursting with excitement and desperation to share their ideas that their arms are waving like a windmill. As Ben Newmark has argued in his excellent post on this topic, students like this can dominate a lesson to the detriment of the majority; in a class of 32, it is my duty to divide my attention and focus as evenly as I can, and allowing one or two students to dominate with questions and anecdotes is unfair to the others. Moreover, as Ben also argues, children who are obsessively thinking about their next contribution are not focusing on the lesson, nor are they listening to anyone else.

Tutoring, by contrast, can be based entirely around a student’s desire to ask questions. Tutees who gain the most from the process are the ones who come with a barrage of questions and this can be a wonderful outlet for children who feel frustrated by having to wait their turn in the classroom. By contrast, it can also provide the opportunity for those less confident students to ask the questions that they might not feel able to ask in class (including the foolish ones); one of my key aims as a tutor is to encourage these questions right from the start, providing a safe environment for a child to start this process – for those who are significantly behind in their subject and who have spent months or even years trying to hide at the back of the classroom, it can take some time to break down these barriers.

Once a child is confident with a private tutor the opportunities are endless, but both student and tutor must remember that these opportunities are peculiar to the one-to-one relationship and cannot be mirrored in the mainstream classroom. As someone who tries to do their best in both worlds, I am constantly reminded of this fact.

A Warning from the Chalkface

An extreme case of unprofessional tutoring …

To illustrate the risk that I believe parents are taking when they employ a tutor without asking the right kinds of questions, I wish to share the story of a student in my current school. It is perhaps the worst case I have come across of a family being let down at the hands of an unqualified, inexperienced and frankly unprofessional tutor.

At the end of Year 9, this student opted not to continue with Latin to GCSE within the school Options system. However, her mother decided that she would like her to pursue the subject outside of school through private tuition. Sadly, this parent did not seek my 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 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.

It was fine for her to sit the Mock that I had written, I said, but 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. “Texts?”

“Yes,” I said, “the verse and prose literature that you have studied. Which texts have you covered?”

To cut a long story short, it quickly became apparent that she 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 urgently. Upon further investigation it turned out (of course) that the child had not even been entered for the exam, her mother completely 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. It took me some considerable time to explain that not only was it probably too late for her child to be entered that year, it would also be simply impossible for her to sit the four 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 (I must admit I am doubtful about this), 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 she had provided. I pointed out that this tutor had taken her money, claimed to be preparing her daughter for an exam that she knew absolutely nothing about and failed to advise her on the entry process. Still, she defended her; it was quite extraordinary. In the end, we agreed to disagree on the woman’s professional qualities. The only other contact I had with the girl’s mother after that was when she passed on a brief request from the tutor in question – could I send her a link to the subject specification?! Unbelievable. Given that this information is publicly available and something she should have looked at two years previously, I’m afraid I refused.

This case is obviously extreme, but it does illustrate the potential risk that parents are taking when they assume that all tutors are the same.

Should you employ a tutor who is not a teacher?

Writing this makes me nervous. It has been on my mind as a topic for several years, but until now I have avoided committing my thoughts to
writing. This is partly self-preservation: I am not keen to receive an onslaught of complaints. Mostly, though, it is a desire to protect other people; I have met numerous private tutors without formal teaching qualifications, all of whom seem committed and passionate, many of whom clearly do a great job. I do not wish to denigrate what they do.

My concerns about the explosion of unqualified tutors offering their services do not mean that all tutors without professional qualifications are to be avoided; however, I do have serious concerns about some of them and I believe that parents should approach the situation with their eyes wide open.

Let me be clear from the outset that my core concerns are in a particular area, namely tutoring support towards a specific examination goal. If your child is struggling in a subject and you would simply like their confidence boosted, there are a huge range of tutors that can probably help with this, including your enthusiastic nephew in his second year at university. However, if you would like your child tutored to a particular
examination, and particularly if you are relying on the tutor to prepare them for that examination in its entirety, I would urge parents in the strongest possible terms to think carefully about what kind of tutor they employ.

Private tuition has exploded in recent years and the number of parents choosing it as an option for their child has risen to a record high. More and more parents are spending money on the service and the plethora of private companies touting for business in this field is frankly bewildering. I have been approached by dozens of providers keen to add me to their books and to take a slice of my profits for doing so. I have registered with some services that allow tutors to maintain full control over their work, and some have been diligent in chasing up evidence of my qualifications and experience. Most, however, have not.

It is my belief that this industry will soon face regulation; the government is already under pressure to address the fact that there is no current requirement for tutors working with children to have a DBS check. It would not surprise me if, within the next three to five years, tutors are forced to go through some kind of registration process at the very least. Will this go some way towards addressing the concerns that I have raised? Highly unlikely.

If I were seeking a private tutor to guide my child towards a particular examination, these are the questions that I would be asking:

1. Is the tutor a qualified teacher? If so, what experience do they have? What was/is their specialism (both subject and age group), what kind of school did/do they work in and for how long? What were/are their results like?

2. If they are a retired teacher, has the syllabus that they will be teaching to changed since they retired? How have they ensured that they are up-to-date with the new specification? (Full time teachers in service have training provided, much of it directly from the examination boards; when I
retire from classroom teaching, I will choose to set aside funds to pay for my own training when required).

3. Have they ever worked as a professional marker? If not, why not? I would make this a priority question if I were considering an
unqualified teacher
. Anyone with the right subject knowledge can apply to
work as a professional marker; you receive superb training and you get paid for it! If a tutor hasn’t opted to do this it would suggest to me that they have no interest in gaining an insight into the examination process.

4. How much experience have they had with one-to-one tutoring? Can they give examples of students that they have helped and can they share testimonials from parents who can vouch for previous successes in the relevant examinations?

In addition to these questions, a fairly recent article in the Telegraph, written by a qualified teacher and experienced tutor, gives some
really good advice on how to choose the right tutor for your child. Ignore it at your peril. In my next blog post, I will be sharing the most shocking case I have come across to date of how an unqualified and inexperienced tutor can let you down.