The risks of tutoring

There is a significant risk attached to tutoring which any parent considering the options would be wise to remember. Christopher King looks at the pros and cons of employing a tutor for your child.

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Many parents will wonder whether tutoring is a good thing. The simple answer is, I feel, that when it is done well, there is much to be said for it – both as a process and for individual tutors. There is however a significant risk attached to tutoring which any parent considering the options would be wise to remember. This is principally about the way in which tutoring manifests itself today: the risk of damage to a child's well-being as a result of over-zealous tutoring is considerable.

Tutoring has a long history which can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. For centuries, tutoring was something provided in more of an ad hoc manner and in a wide variety of settings. The main purpose would be for the tutor to pass on knowledge so the tutee would gain proficiency in a subject area. This form of education was the kind preferred by the governess who, during the nineteenth century, were women employed to teach the children in a private household. Well-off families prior to WWI, especially in the countryside, preferred to educate their children at home rather than send them away to boarding school – and the governess was engaged to perform this role.

Notable individuals had spells as a governess, including Edith Cavell and Marie Curie, and, of course, there have been some very well-known fictional governesses including Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp, the main character in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Their imagined existences might have ended with mixed outcomes but the position of a governess was a highly respected one in the public's perception. Until the twentieth century, the focus would have been on the Classics, mathematics and English, with maybe a little French. The latter half of the twentieth century saw a shift to more structured provision with specialist training of tutors. The rapid spread – and then universal availability – of secondary education saw the corresponding increase in tutoring as a means to supplement formal education. What remains important today is that the experience should still be essentially benign and positive. There are different types of tutoring today, including specialist tutorial colleges and online resources but, to most people, the tutor is more likely to be in the home – either the tutor's or the child's.

In its current form, it has emerged as what some commentators, such as Mark Bray, have called the 'shadow education'. It is rarely acknowledged that it is the hard graft of the teachers in the school who provide the basis on which the tutor can work. Such tutoring is largely informal and unstructured yet such an approach is popular and can come to overshadow the mainstream, especially when children are approaching important examinations. It is well known that tutoring is not just the preserve of independent school parents, with some estimates suggesting that a quarter of all children will have received private tuition at some stage. The Sutton Trust commissioned a poll back in 2017 as part of its research into tutoring, estimating that pupils approaching GCSEs received on average 9.5 hours per week of extra tuition or help. They estimated the industry to be worth £2bn a year. Many parents will simply look at tutoring in terms of cost-benefit: if it gets their child into a 'top' school, then it's a job well done. But is it?

"Parents should always reflect on the motivation for tutoring. If the school tells you – and can demonstrate with evidence – your child is doing well, you should trust them."

The vast majority of families who hire tutors in Britain are middle-class parents, with students who need a boost. Where pupils fall behind for whatever reason, be it ill-heath or disrupted teacher delivery, it makes a good deal of sense that they do get extra help. But before embarking on your quest for the perfect tutor, parents should look carefully at their child's academic strengths and weaknesses. Review their schoolbooks to determine the areas that would benefit from a close focus and speak to the school's teachers before you do anything – they have a familiarity with the child that provides invaluable insight both for you and any potential tutor.

If you're looking for help with 11-plus preparation, make sure you know the exam style or have a couple of past papers to hand. Talk to your child about tutoring so you can gauge the commitment and the attitude they are likely to show in lessons, as well as their level of interest and confidence in the subject. Understand fully the qualifications of any tutor and don't just rely on word of mouth. When a parent chooses a school for their child they should do their due diligence; parents should be just as exacting when it comes to the choice of tutor. There is, of course, also the issue of safeguarding. Teachers in school are very careful when working on a one-to-one basis with children and this is done in a very visible way. Dropping a child off at a tutor's house without satisfying oneself that it is really a safe environment would seem to be out of step with the times.

Parents should always reflect on the motivation for tutoring. If the school tells you – and can demonstrate with evidence – your child is doing well, you should trust them. Do not move to employ a tutor who adds no value. This runs the risk of potentially adding pressure on the shoulders of your child through an additional workload. Any ultra-pressured situation can lead very quickly to well-being issues where a child under-performs. Despite your best intentions, the outcome ends up being the opposite of what you had hoped. It is only natural for parents to seek to do the best for their children, but before embarking on tutoring, please be sure there is a real need – and you know exactly what you want to achieve.

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Christopher King is the Chief Executive of IAPS.

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