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.

Superprof purchase of The Tutor Pages

Some disturbing stories have come out surrounding the recent purchase of the UK-based site called The Tutor Pages by global brand Superprof.

Many tutors have reported that The Tutor Pages was their main source of clients and it must have been an unimaginably devastating shock to learn that the site had been disbanded with no warning, no consultation.

I am disturbed by reports that Superprof have been unhelpful and unwilling to issue refunds to clients unhappy about this extraordinary takeover, yet I am even more shocked by the behaviour of the now-defunct company they have bought. What kind of company says nothing about an impending takeover to its paying customers? This wouldn’t matter so much if the new company had bought the domain name and maintained the service as it was – but this is emphatically not the case; indeed the look of the new site, the way it operates and its general approach could not be more different.

Superprof operates under a completely different business model from that set up by The Tutor Pages. Tutors can sign up for free but are (of course) encouraged to “upgrade” to what’s marketed as a superior service for a fee (and I wonder whether tutors previously signed up to The Tutor Pages were assumed to be new paying customers for Superprof? Hmmmm). Their main source of revenue, however, lies in charging potential clients for tutors’ contact details. They are by no means the only company that operate under this model and I’m not saying it’s a bad one – the point is that the model is completely different from that used by the purchased company. Tutors (myself included) who had previously signed up to the now-defunct Tutor Pages paid a fee upfront to advertise on the site – potential clients were not charged. I can see why people are angry at being migrated to a site that operates under a completely different model, as well as one that is yet to prove itself as a reliable source of UK-based clients.

I advertise as a tutor on a range of sites and until the recent takeover The Tutor Pages was one of them. As it happens I have gained relatively few clients from this kind of advertising. My own website performs very well on Google thanks to the combination of my relatively obscure specialist subject and a killer domain name; most of my referrals therefore come via my own website, local advertising, word of mouth and (weirdly) my Facebook page.

The first Tutor Pages customers learned of the takeover was a chirpy email from Superprof informing us of the switch and assuring us that our details had been transferred without a hitch. Hmmmm I thought. Reading on, it seemed that I had been assigned a laughably insecure password and this in itself was enough to send me scrambling to the computer to delete my details with immediate effect. (How all of this is allowed under GDPR is anybody’s guess).

Following the precaution of deleting my transferred details, and since I tend think it’s worth sticking an advert wherever one can (especially for free), I signed up afresh with new details and even started the process of asking old clients to make recommendations on my Superprof profile. I’d never heard of Superprof before but thought “ah well. Why not?”

Well.

Having done some further research I have deleted my account again. The way this whole takeover has been handled is shocking and I do not wish to be associated with such a company. In addition, I noticed that my details were appearing under Superprof on a Google search with entirely the wrong fees listed (half the price of my actual charges) plus the link was broken. I queried this with Superprof and having waited over 24 hours for a response I had already decided to cut my losses and delete the account. I had also read complaints from numerous tutors that their fees had been listed wrongly and having browsed the site I know for a fact that there are tutors on there with their listings still incorrect – I have seen them advertise elsewhere and know their rates – some of them have had their rates slashed by two thirds on Superprof and no doubt they are blissfully unaware.

I note from Twitter discussions that lots of tutors have had an outrageous battle to get their registration fee back. I wasn’t too worried about chasing them for a refund of my original fee paid to The Tutor Pages as on checking my records it was due to expire in a couple of months so I figured it wasn’t worth the hassle. Others have been more determined and I congratulate them on not taking this lying down.

In Defence of Private Tuition

“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.