29 May 2013

The Dread That is Tutoring

Tutors. They are, without doubt, the secret weapon of the modern day parent. School is not enough these days.
When I was growing up nobody had tutors, unless you were rather dim. Now they are quite the opposite. “Who are yours with?” is the whisper at the school gates. Some tutors I know in North London have a TWO YEAR waiting list. Parents put their children’s names down for tutors when they are in Reception, as if a decent tutor was the same as a place at Eton. Sometimes, of course, the one leads to the other. But not always.

These days, tutors are being used by parents to crowbar their children into top private schools but now the squeeze is really on to get your kid into the ludicrously oversubscribed state selective sector. Ironically this has given the private tutor, who typically comes from a private school, even more status
My son, tutored for 2 years, took an exam to get into one such state school in North London. He’s a bright enough kid. He came 1067th. His friend, who happens to be the England Under-11 Scrabble Champion, came 965th.

Out of my four children, I had two tutored for secondary school entrance. Was it because of peer pressure at the school gates? Absolutely. You do it because everyone else is doing it. You want to do the best for your children, even if you believe in comprehensive education (which I do), and you don’t want them to be left behind in an increasingly uneven playing field. If every single child sitting an entrance exam has been tutored up to the eyeballs, God help you if yours hasn’t, because they. This was my mindset, at least.

But my children failed to get into all the schools they had been tutored for. Then I talked to some brave friends who resolutely refused to tutor their daughter. She took all the secondary exams for private schools in London. She passed them all and is now at St Paul’s. Will she keep up in class? Undoubtedly, because she wasn’t tutored to death for the exam. The exams tested her natural intelligence and she passed them.

I don’t castigate people who do use tutors. I just think they are probably not worth the money. I think I would write this even if my experience had been successful. Our tutor was a lovely man and took a lot of care to make sure my children were familiar with exam technique. But what I was paying for, essentially, was a quiet two hour period for my child to go over past papers, again and again. Was this something I could have done myself? Undoubtedly. Would my children have taken it as seriously? Probably not, but there are other techniques including workbooks at the library. Bribery is also a good wheeze, as I have found out with music practise.

How did my children eventually fare? They both got places in excellent London state secondaries via their musical abilities. Furthermore, one school has a sibling policy, which is manna from heaven for anyone with four children. Yes, I pay someone to give them private music lessons. To some, this might be as pernicious as maths tuition. If you are 10 years old and Grade 5 on the piano when you apply for a Music Scholarship, you stand a pretty good chance of being accepted. Only it’s not quite the same. Learning the piano, or violin, is a life long skill, and an entrance ticket to the world of music, whereas cracking through Non Verbal Reasoning is simply a raison d’etre for getting a place at a decent school.

To tutor, or not to tutor? To be a helicopter mother, or to let children find their own way? In the end, we all just try our best and hope that via an unholy muddle of encouragement, bedtime reading, clean clothes and the odd trip to a museum, our children will get through it all. And they probably will.


  1. I don't think tutors should be used to try and force your children to get into schools with crazy standards... they're there to help students catch up in areas they're falling behind in. I mean, that's what I always thought they were used for. I guess I should visit website to learn more about tutoring because I'm probably wrong :)

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