Working as a private tutor is one of those jobs, like being a chimneysweep or chambermaid, that feels distinctly 19th-century. You are a stranger in a strange house, armed with nothing but an Oxbridge degree and a paper-thin superior mien, treated alternately with suspicion and awe. In recent months, however, much has been written about the very modern boom in private tuition: a seemingly insatiable demand for extra help in passing exams and school entrance tests or in gaining admission to elite universities.
What began as a profitable pastime during university holidays quickly became one of my main sources of income, helping to fund my postgraduate studies. Just three hours a week yielded around £100 in cash, usually more than that. Unlike those desirable schools and universities, tutors are mercenaries with no selection criteria save parental ability to pay in cold, hard cash. Some students are lost causes, glazing over at the very mention of dictionaries or extra reading. Others are excited at the prospect of doing better than their friends.
One of my most memorable jobs was advertised as a "history crash course" for a young man preparing to take his AS-levels. It was a weekend job that involved my taking a train from King's Cross to somewhere in the home counties and being chauffeured to an elegantly decayed manor house. Having benefited from the most costly education money can buy, my young charge was still quite unable to comprehend the basic system of analysing source material and constructing an answer that would fall into "Band One", the prerequisite for an A grade. We spent two hours on deconstructing provenances, and then, upon his insistence, retired to prepare for a family dinner involving filet mignon from the Aga. Never before had I felt more like the little governess up from the big city, but I wasn't complaining, for what other job pays a generous sum for the equivalent of a weekend in a country house hotel?
I arrived back to a typically sensational headline in one of the red-tops: "Failing schools spark private tuition explosion." It conjured up images of enthusiastic tutors lurking outside the school gates ready to pounce on nervous parents, and offering the intoxicating whiff of exam success. In reality, most tutors register with local agencies that then advertise and allot jobs on a first-come, first-served basis.
Payment is also funnelled through the agency, offering a degree of security for the tutor and around 30 per cent of the fee for the agent. Going it alone is more risky, but for an extra £10 an hour it can be worth it.