“…have good and able teachers at home; and for things of this nature account no expense too great…” – Marcus Aurelius
Private tuition is as old as education itself. Any student of philosophy knows that Socrates tutored Plato, who tutored Aristotle, himself tutor to the young Alexander the Great, and, as the quote above from emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius attests, the Romans were just as fond of tutoring as the Greeks. Tuition has long been seen as the most effective way to support a child’s education, providing them with a personal mentor and role model as well as a teacher.
Today private tuition has lost none of its popularity. It’s estimated that around a quarter of children in the UK receive tuition at some point, the majority of whom receive help in advance of important tests, either entrance exams to secondary schools or public exams such as GCSEs and A Levels. The current appetite for tuition isn’t without its detractors, though. Many ask why they should invest yet more money in their children’s education at home when they are already paying significant sums to world-renowned British schools, and the fact that children today are burdened with so many extra-curricular activities – sport, drama, music and everything in between – means that the merits of burdening them further with extra lessons is cast into doubt.
Tutoring can be a fantastic resource, providing encouragement and reassurance to pupils feeling overwhelmed by their schoolwork, and boosting the confidence of others that are doubting their own abilities, but that doesn’t mean that every child should be tutored. Indeed, in some cases it can even be detrimental to a child’s progress, especially if the pupil in question isn’t being given enough time to simply relax and switch off.
The various pros and cons of tutoring make it difficult for parents to decide whether or not to invest in extra help, and that’s why today we’re going to look at five reasons for tutoring your child, as well as three reasons you might decide not to. Tutoring isn’t just about helping children improve their marks at school, and below we’re going to argue that there are certain other benefits to hiring a tutor that parents might not be aware of. Likewise, tutoring is not a panacea to educational problems, and in many cases might do very little to change a child’s academic fortunes.
To begin with, let’s look at five reasons you might want to hire a tutor for your child.
1) To make sure he/she doesn’t fall behind
Formal education is often likened to teaching a child to ride a bike: it makes little difference if at the end of the year he can’t ride without stabilisers — you still take the bike away and ask him to move onto the unicycle.
The biggest argument for home tuition is it allows your child to be ready for that unicycle when it comes. After all, it’s impossible for classroom teachers to give each child the attention he or she deserves, and if a method isn’t understood properly, or if reading or writing skills develop too slowly there’s very little that can be done in school to sort out the problem. It goes without saying that falling behind can be disastrous for a child’s education, particularly if a child is already struggling before they reach secondary school. Poor marks early on can have serious ramifications, with apathy, resentment and bad behaviour a likely result of not being able to keep up in class. The additional problem of being put into lower sets find themselves in the lower sets are exposed to a vicious cycle of themselves in lower sets and with other pupils that have no interest in learning.
Having help at home is invaluable in correcting problems that emerge in the classroom. A good tutor will identify a child’s weaknesses and take proactive steps to strengthen them. This might mean going over maths problems, helping to choose the right books, guiding revision, or more generally re-teaching topics that have already been covered in class.
The first reason you should get a tutor then is if you worry your child is falling behind at school. If a teacher says that homework is routinely being done badly, or if your child complains that they’re struggling to understand what’s being studied in class it might be worth enlisting extra help before these problems get out of hand.
2) To provide expert advice with school entrance exams
The second reason for getting a tutor concerns entrance exams. When it comes to applying to top schools it’s not enough to be brilliant at school; there are techniques that every candidate needs to be familiar with to succeed. For example, in the case of the comprehension section of the 11+ English exam, a strong candidate might still not know how to echo the question, or how to analyse a simile, techniques that are required to achieve a top mark. Choosing a good tutor means having access to a variety of trick and tips that can dramatically improve your child’s score, and potentially be the difference between missing out on a place or getting through to interview.
Tutoring also means having access to more general pedagogical expertise. The most accomplished tutors will have thousands of hours’ experience working with pupils and preparing them for exams. They will have their own special techniques to get the best out of their pupils, can recommend helpful books and resources, and will have a network of other education professionals that parents can turn to for advice. Furthermore, tutors with experience of school entrance applications will know exactly what needs to be done and by when; they will likely be familiar to school registrars too, making the entire process smoother. They will also be able to advise the parents on best practice for things like homework and reading. In this regard tutors can be as much a guide and support to parents as they are to their children.
3) To make education personal
Tutoring is not simply a teacher sitting at a desk with a pupil and telling them what to put down onto paper. It’s a personal relationship. Why is this important?
Well, it’s important because a top tutor is a highly educated, high-achieving, and often highly talented individual. If they’ve graduated from a top university they know what it means to work hard. They know about discipline, about time management and about having a positive attitude. Introducing your child to such an individual means providing him or her with an excellent role model, and often a friend too. As well as boosting their schoolwork or preparing them for an exam, a tutor might play football with your child, write stories with her, take him to the cinema, introduce her to film and music or teach him a new skill like coding or cooking.
There’s also the fact that in families where both parents work it’s not always possible to be at home supervising the children. In such a situation the support of someone reliable that shares your values and attitudes to education is invaluable.
Tutoring can simply mean extra maths lessons on a Thursday afternoon. But it can also mean your child spending time with someone who invests time in their personal development, teaches them new skills and good habits and is as much a positive role model as a teacher.
4) To make life easier
It’s a fact of life that children argue with their parents, and, as much as this might be a source of frustration to parents, it’s fundamentally important to a child’s development, allowing him to individuate and gradually become independent. There are inevitable tensions when a parent asks their child to sit down and do their homework, and even more so when Mum or Dad floats the idea of doing some extra work in addition to homework.
One of the benefits of tutoring is it allows parents to skip out these tensions. Yes, there might well be objections to the tutor coming over, but it’s rare for children to display the same level of opposition to a stranger as they would to a parent. The tutor can be the one to soak up any opposition, leaving the parents to enjoy the time they have with their children, rather than being engaged in a shouting match about maths exercises.
Employing a tutor also means ensuring that your child is getting their homework done on time. Many parents don’t have the luxury of time to sit down and work through homework with their children, and so by employing a tutor they make sure that homework gets done in a timely fashion, freeing both them and their children from stress.
5) To broaden your child’s education
We’ve already discussed how a tutor can be far more than a tutor. But as a teacher a tutor can be far more effective than a classroom teacher in that they don’t have to stick to a prescribed curriculum. If your child wants to really explore their subject, a tutor is someone that can guide them. If your child expresses an interest in physics and astronomy, why not hire an astrophysics PhD to help them get further into the subject? If they become obsessed with the work of Jane Austen, why not have them talk about 19th century novels with a Cambridge English graduate?
While the western education system compartmentalises ideas and concepts into subjects, the reality is that many academic disciplines are interlinked. It is meaningless to learn history without politics, philosophy and theology, and impossible to dissect biology without chemistry, and chemistry without physics. A tutor will allow lessons to branch away from the curriculum and embrace wider fields of thought. They will allow lessons to follow the imagination and natural curiosity of the pupil, fostering greater understanding and making learning something exciting, inspiring and fundamentally enjoyable.
Three Situations when tutoring isn’t the right choice
Now that we’ve seen why you would want to hire a tutor, let’s ask the opposite question. When is hiring a tutor not the answer to your educational problem? Here are three reasons why hiring a tutor might not be right for you or your child.
1) Tutoring can’t compensate for bad home habits
Anyone who’s ever struggled to fall asleep knows the term ‘sleep hygiene.’ Having good sleep hygiene means turning off screens an hour before bed, keeping your bedroom at the right temperature and making sure that you reserve your bedroom exclusively for sleeping. In the same way that there is sleep hygiene, there is also educational hygiene – paying careful attention to factors that affect a child’s schoolwork. Regular bedtimes and mealtimes are essential to good academic performance; children simply can’t work well if they’re either hungry or tired. Homework should ideally be done at the same time each night, too. No amount of tutoring will help if children aren’t reading and being read to, and so parents should take it as their responsibility to organise a period of reading each night. Good home habits also apply to the specific targets that parents have for their children. Parents of bilingual children looking to improve English skills should consider what language is being played on the radio in the morning, what TV and films are being watched, and what language electronic devices are set to.
If you’re thinking about getting a tutor, ask first what you can do to improve the situation – it might be that, by implementing a solid home routine and insisting on a few maths problems every morning and reading at night, those problems disappear without any money being spent.
2) Your child isn’t relaxing or being rewarded enough
Given the overwhelming pressure to get children into good schools and universities, parents can be forgiven for feeling anxious about how well their little ones are doing at school. At the same time it’s vital not to overburden children. Numerous studies have shown how important free time and play are to a child’s educational development, and it’s often the case that the best way to help your child is by asking them to do less, rather than more. Bad behaviour and poor grades at school can be indications of fatigue, rather than lack of ability or understanding, and so any parent considering tutoring should ask whether their child could actually do with some more time to relax and have fun. Fun means doing whatever the child wants to do, even if the parents don’t personally find it worthy or interesting. For example, if a child wants to play video games, let them! (Just not all the time!)
It’s also crucial that parents offer significant rewards to children for good work at school. By using positive incentives parents can motivate their children and improve their behaviour. Meanwhile negative incentives, particularly when used too harshly, can create precisely the opposite effect.
If your child is overworked and not being rewarded for good work at school, consider giving them more time to do what they want, before you ask them to take on extra lessons.
3) Your child is too young
Some London schools now offer a 4+ exam, and it can be tempting for young families to seek help in preparing for entrance tests from the earliest age possible. From a pedagogical standpoint, however, trying to push your child’s academic development too early is like trying to get your car to go faster by fitting it with ten extra wheels. Children need play to develop their cognitive and motor skills, and they won’t respond to excessive teaching at an early age. Even when they start to become more amenable to tuition, at around the age of 5 or 6, teaching should still be very physical – rather than teach maths with pencil and paper it’s far more effective to employ lego and other physical metaphors.
Education for young children should be about play, and if you’re going to hire a tutor to work with your four year-old they need to understand that (you can be assured that they will if they have any expertise with that age group). There is nothing wrong with hiring a nanny or someone to provide educational play, but parents need to understand that there should be no expectations on a child to achieve anything at such a young age, and it would be a mistake to try and force them into the front of the race from the very beginning. School life is competitive, so let them play while they can.