In ancient Greece and Rome, where there was no state-funded system of education and where formal ‘schools’ did not exist in the modern sense, the children of wealthy families would receive much of their education through private tutors. Educating a child through a one-to-one relationship with a teacher has therefore been around for over 2,500 years. I myself have tutored in the past. During my first teaching job, I met a colleague whose bright son attended a local school that did not teach Latin. As a Classicist, I offered my tutoring services and he passed his Latin GCSE.
My wife also tutors every day. She works in a Special Educational Needs department teaching children with dyslexia, dyscalcula, ADD and Asperger’s on a one-to-one basis. She supports their learning in mainstream subjects but also equips them with the cognitive skills and organisational strategies they need to fulfil their potential in the future. She helps them grow wings so, one day, they can fly independently. This is why there is a place for tutoring in the modern educational landscape. Why not use a tutor to challenge a bright child by taking their learning beyond the curriculum? Why not use tutoring to support a child with specific areas of weakness or educational needs?
This leads me, however, to a more fundamental question: what is the purpose of education? The verb ‘educate’ has two Latin roots: educare meaning ‘to rear’, ‘to mould’, ‘to bring up’ and educere meaning ‘to bring out’ or ‘lead forth’. I have always been more strongly drawn to the latter, with its focus on education as a journey during which children’s innate aptitudes are nurtured and drawn out; the former reduces education merely to shaping children to the mould which their parents, school or society has determined for them. For me, therefore, a good education is about unlocking the potential and nurturing the abilities within each and every child so they become the best they can be in every facet of themselves. It is the journey to self. That’s why I was happy to tutor my colleague’s son and that’s why my wife loves doing her job. Tutoring of this type is part of education in the educere sense.
Ask most pupils, parents or schools in the South East what their definition of ‘tutoring’ is, however, and you will receive a response which has nothing to do with the journey to self, supporting children to grow wings, or stretching a bright child. Instead, you will enter a murky world of Verbal Reasoning, of frighteningly competitive school entry lists, and of well meaning parents who will do everything to get their child into their school of choice. Tutoring in this sense is the preparation of children to jump through the admission hoops of some excellent but highly competitive senior schools. And, to be honest, I have sympathy with these parents. All the perceived ‘top’ schools are over-subscribed yet most have narrow and similar entrance exams based on reasoning, numeracy and literacy. And competing for these limited places are tens of thousands of able children from high-achieving and aspirational families who want ‘the best’. Is it any wonder some feel compelled to employ a tutor? I would never criticise a family who has done so but I would always advise them to think twice.
When tutoring is employed to squeeze every last drop of performance out of a 10 year-old child so they scrape their way into a school which is not the right fit, who really benefits? It is the child who is likely to suffer if they spend five or seven years having their self-esteem chipped away on a daily basis by bouncing along the bottom of a school whose academic environment is not in tune with their needs. Most children do not thrive by being the smallest fish in a large and competitive pond. Ask any teacher and they will confirm that a child’s happiness is a key factor in successful learning.
Furthermore, if a child spends so much of their spare time ploughing through practice papers and being drilled in different NVR questions that they resent the process and lose enjoyment in learning, then where is the ultimate benefit in that? They could and should be spending that time expanding their minds by reading books, talking about current affairs with their parents, going to museums or the theatre – or simply enjoying being a child and spending time together as a family.
A further concern is the amount of stress excessive tutoring puts on very young children. After dozens of hours of VR sessions and practice papers, it is no wonder that many children (often just ten years-old or younger) feel like failures when they receive rejection after rejection because well-intentioned but misguided parents have set them up for something which was never realistically within their grasp. They may have failed to get into one school but they are not failures, although one can understand why they feel that way given the pressure which has, overtly or covertly, been heaped on through the process.
It is, however, fundamentally senior schools who are culpable for the situation in which we find ourselves. For too long, the way into top grammars or highly selective independent schools has been focussed too heavily on high scores in various reasoning, numeracy and literacy tests at the expense of other equally valued virtues such as emotional intelligence, resilience, and growth mindset (all of which have an increasing body of research evidence behind them as key predictors of future success).
I am not arguing that Admissions Offices should ignore children’s abilities in reading, writing and numeracy during the admissions process; all senior schools want children who will be happy and thrive within their particular academic environments. But by reducing the admissions process to jumping through such narrow hoops as VR and NVR tests, is it any surprise that parents spend so much time, money and energy employing tutors to prepare their children for those hoops?
What many parents also fail to realise is that spending money on a tutor can be a false economy. It is relatively simple to spot a tutored candidate and it usually counts against them if a senior school feels they are not engaging with the genuine child on an assessment day or in interview. Increasingly, many senior schools are changing their entry procedures to militate against the ‘tutoring effect’. At my own school, we have spent the last three years redesigning our 13+ admissions process and now place significant emphasis on collaborative, problem-solving activities for which no preparation can be done in order to allow candidates to set aside their ‘tutored selves’ and show as many sides of their character and personality as possible.
The modern culture of tutoring is not going to change any time soon, but when parents ask me what the best way for children to prepare for senior school entry is, my advice will always be the same: work hard at school, ditch the tutor, and get a life!