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.
Private tuition does explode one myth: educational equality. There will always be a market for educational advantage. Those who crusade against private schools may do so in the belief that once everyone is forced to attend the local comprehensive, there might be some levelling of opportunity. This is fantasy: a recent survey showed that almost half of state-school pupils in London had had some form of private tuition in the last five years. Paying for extra help is most certainly not the preserve of the moneyed few who top up £18,000-a-year school fees with a few hours on the side for young Hugo or Petra.
No wonder the Sutton Trust thinks tuition will “widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots” and the trust’s founder Sir Peter Lampl described the impact on equality as “staggering”.
How can we explain this sudden rise in demand for private tuition among state-
educated students? The (mainly London) parents of this new market fear that not paying any school fees will have a deleterious impact on their children — not necessarily because they have poor teachers, but because the strictures of curriculum and Key Stage stymie breadth of knowledge or interest outside passing test after test.
One of the direst indictments of the current school system is the complete ignorance of history not directly related to the syllabus. One can study the French Revolution and have no idea who Napoleon is — the end date of the course is 1795. It is therefore thought that a certain worldliness and sophistication is necessary to overcome the obstacles of UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) or to persuade inundated admissions tutors. This fresh clientele only supplements the steady diet of pupils from private schools, making today an excellent time to enter the cut-throat arena of desperate parents and feckless youths.
Competition for university places has never been steeper. Students from some of the most academically glittering private institutions in the country are told that a single blemish on their record can be the perfect excuse to shift their application to the rejection pile.
The pressure to admit students from less-advantaged backgrounds makes it even more crucial for private school applicants to achieve a row of 100 per cent marks on AS-level modules — a mere “A” no longer suffices. This, plus all the usual debating decorations, essay prizes and athletics cups: some of my students look half-dead from exhaustion.
So it should not be too great a surprise to learn that tutors are especially busy in exam season, rushing to capitalise on the massive pressure to gain an offer, any offer at a Russell Group (the British equivalent of the Ivy League) university.
Oxbridge admission has spawned an entire industry, with companies offering bespoke packages of intensive tuition and interview practice. I believe these packages to be a waste of time and money on the part of the applicant, but who am I to turn up my nose at a cool £400 for a few hours of chit-chat and the promise of a cash bonus for success? Interview preparation packages pretend to demystify the process while making it more daunting and complex in order to extract the maximum amount of cash from ambitious parents. College interviewers spend a surprisingly large amount of time in the real world: they can tell the intensively prepared from the naturally bright and engaging.
Tuition, though, is still morally superior to other means of earning a little extra money: outfits such as Oxbridge Essays charge up to £600 to have a graduate write your dissertation for you. Private tuition is at least not outright cheating.
The government’s relentless levelling down of standards may have created, on paper, a higher level of achievement across the board. However, in reality, it has only encouraged more parents to spend money on expensive private tuition — rather than creating any kind of equality, parents are buying advantage as never before. Even some at Westminster are sensing the change, hence the announcement that one-to-one tuition in English and Maths for struggling students will form part of the curriculum by September 2010, costing £468 million. For experienced tutors, work is pouring in, and I am increasingly able to teach only those within 15 minutes of where I live, or ask students to come to my house for sessions (I provide free tea and biscuits).
It all comes down to competition, in the end. The government’s eternal promise to parents is more choice; but when that fails to materialise, they choose to pay me.