What prompts parents to seek an educational boost for their children? Virginia Matthews explores the growing demand in the world of private tuition
Private tuition has been in fashion ever since Plato became the star pupil of the Greek philosopher Socrates, and its popularity among parents of all backgrounds is today as strong as ever.
Whether it’s catching up in chemistry, moving forward in maths or learning to love languages, regular one-to-one sessions with a professional tutor outside the classroom can have a marked impact on grades.
Although some families still choose face-to-face sessions, either at their own home or that of the tutor, an increasing number are opting for the flexibility of online tuition using webcam or no-frills audio.
A-level religious studies tutor Louise Harrison, 64, is a retired schoolteacher who conducts all her lessons online. She says: “Some parents are sceptical about online tuition because they worry that it misses out on the personal touch.
“However, as my many A and A* students will testify though, it’s an approach that works really well with a generation for whom studying via a screen is as natural as breathing.”
Although Ms Harrison finds that communicating by audio is “less distracting” than a webcam, the structure of any online lesson will be largely the same.
She says: “Each time we ‘meet’ virtually, we work through identical resources on our respective screens, exploring any questions or problems that arise and highlighting any important passages as we go.
“Rather than studying in total silence, a two-way conversation is maintained throughout the session and by the end of the hour, we’ve really got under the skin of the topic.”
In fact, Ms Harrison believes that for more shy or reticent students, the “anonymity of communicating online, rather than face to face, can really allow them to shine”.
It has been estimated that more than a quarter of all schoolchildren across both public and private sectors have received private tuition at prices that range from £20 to £60-plus an hour, depending on the age of the child, the subject and the location.
With all types of tuition, weekly or, at a pinch, twice-weekly sessions are the norm. But remember that most tutors will expect to take at least six months to coax your child from a low D grade to a good C or higher.
While many tutors unearth real academic promise in children whose performance may be unremarkable at school, the rule of thumb is to hope for a one- to two-grade improvement on average in the course of any one academic year. But targets should help a pupil’s skills in a topic, not simply aim at improving their grades.
Whether a tutor is hired to help a child catch up, boost confidence or lift attainment in the run-up to GCSEs or A-levels, he or she can also provide a bridge between a family and school.
“Many parents have worries about their child’s academic development but feel either unqualified to ask too many questions of their school or wary of being seen as troublesome,” says Vicky Mountford from Brighton, who tutors under-11s in English, maths and science.
“I see it as my job to explain to parents how the current national curriculum works and the best ways to support children in achieving the results they are targeting.
“As a personal tutor rather than a schoolteacher, my role is to focus all my attention on a single child for an hour a week and allow them, and not the demands of the curriculum, to set the pace.”
Ms Mountford says an increasing number of schools will do their best to offer suggestions to tutors as to where they should be concentrating their efforts.
Although many families may feel that their child’s life is already too busy, online tuition makes it much easier to dovetail it with existing out-of-school activities.
Whether you arrange after-school sessions during the week or prefer a more leisurely Saturday or Sunday morning arrangement, you can find tutors who will be happy to work around other commitments you and your child may have.
Although it’s important to ensure that routine homework assignments are completed by pupils and not by tutors, hiring a professional teacher can lift a significant burden on parents when it comes to schoolwork, says mother-of-three Clare Fallon.
“My children are very close in age and when they were all in their early teens, my husband and I found that rather than enjoying our leisure time with them, we were up to our eyes in algebra and German grammar problems that were frankly baffling.
“By arranging a weekly two-hour tuition session both for our twins and their older brother, during which routine homework guidance was given, the children were able to do more of their work unsupervised and we got our evenings back.”
Although many parents hire private tutors in advance of significant milestones such as the 11-plus or a school entry exam or GCSEs, it isn’t all about exams.
All of us can remember the teacher we liked the most, just as we can recall the one we most feared. For many parents, a tutor will inevitably become both a role model for a child as well as a family friend.
Why we opted for a tutor
Virginia Matthews hears why two parents hired tutors – and what results they got
Harrogate-based Caroline Harrison, 50, sought traditional private tutoring for her daughter Georgina, who has dyslexia, before opting for online tutoring when the family moved abroad
When Caroline Harrison’s family temporarily relocated to Bahrain during her daughter’s sixth-form years, she decided online tutoring was the only realistic option to support her education while they were in the Persian Gulf.
Thanks to the extra support she received, Georgina, now 19, did well at A-level and has just finished the first year of a degree in textile design at De Montfort University.
“Fear of failure and a lack of confidence had been a long-term problem for Georgina, compounded by the fact that her comprehensive school back in the UK had few resources available to help with her particular problems,” says Caroline.
“We had already found face-to-face tutoring to be highly effective in helping her achieve top grades in English GCSE but, to be honest, were pretty sceptical when it turned out that online tutoring was going to be our best hope for Georgina getting a good result at A-level. I don’t know if it’s the age she was, or the fact that it was so well suited to her particular learning style and her need for a lot of repetition, but arranging for her to study remotely turned out to be even better than face-to-face tuition. I can’t praise it highly enough.”
For Georgina herself, several years of struggling with dyslexia had made her feel demoralised and pessimistic about her chances of getting a place at university.
“When I first began one-to-one tutoring for philosophy and ethics at A-level, I didn’t believe I was capable of achieving very much, primarily because of how much I had always struggled at school,” she says.
“My dyslexia meant that it was really difficult to process and retain facts and there wasn’t the time or staff resource available in school to offer the sort of support I needed.”
Despite being told by a teacher at her school that she was likely to fail the A-level, intensive online tutoring for two hours a week had a dramatic impact on her performance.
“I connected really well with my tutor’s teaching style online and as a result my grades began to slowly improve. I re-sat one of my AS papers and achieved 100 per cent – after previously getting an E – and my final A-level grade was an A.”
Lillian Brown, from south-east London, sought a maths tutor last June for Carlah, her 13-year-old daughter, after failing to resolve persistent issues that she had encountered with the subject
Having shortlisted a small number of tutors, Lillian Brown hired the one she felt would achieve results and get on well with her daughter and began regular weekly sessions.
After less than three months of tuition, she says that her daughter has learnt more, and acquired more confidence in the subject than she ever did at secondary school.
“The difference in how my daughter approaches topics such as algebra, fractions and percentages has changed out of all recognition and her new-found confidence is very obvious to me as her mum,” says Lillian.
Although her daughter’s local comprehensive school is “pretty good,” there are issues of “managing behaviour” and Lillian believes that, as a result, Carlah’s teacher is unable to devote as much time to her daughter as she would like.
“The money that we spend each week on an hour of tuition buys us a friendly, supportive environment and 60 minutes of pure maths teaching that represents incredibly good value in my book.
“My daughter is looking forward to starting Year 10, rather than dreading it, and we are even starting to dream about a top grade in her GCSEs in a couple of years’ time.”
Having sat in on the private tutoring sessions, Lillian knows that they are well structured.
“There’s no chit-chat and no whispering at the back as there would be in a large class, just professional teaching from someone who is committed to her subject and is able to make it fun,” she says.
“A new environment, where Carlah has no history of failing at maths, has helped her to achieve even more.
“She knows that if she works hard, she can hopefully move out of the bottom maths group at school and get herself into one of the top sets. That’ll be an enormous help in overcoming her sense of failure.” Carlah agrees that the tutoring has been a great help.
“The tutor breaks everything down for me and makes sure that I understand each topic before she moves on to the next one, and at last, I get it.
“I used to see maths as a subject for the smart kids, but I’m starting to believe that with my tutor’s help, I can be a smart kid too.”