The Right Approach

30th June 2017

Children are under more pressure than ever to succeed academically – so is tutoring the best way forward, or is it an extra burden on their time? Lisa Botwright finds out more…

Hands up if you’ve ever paid for extra tuition for your child. I don’t mean literally wave your hands in the air – especially if you’re reading this in a café, say, or a waiting room – but figuratively speaking: are you happy to proclaim the fact, or do you feel rather sheepish?

Tutoring is one of those things that causes much angst among parents. There’s a concern of coming across as a ‘pushy parent’ – of adding to, rather than relieving, your child’s stress levels. A couple of years ago I went to a talk given by education specialist Sue Palmer (author of Toxic Childhood) and her admonition for parents to ensure their child has plenty of time to play outside and enjoy ‘everyday adventures’ is still ringing in my ears.

Adding extra tutoring, on top of a full day at school, as well as homework, can seem rather extreme. However, as parents, we naturally want the best for our children. We want them to go to the ‘right’ school (whether it’s the one that gets the best results, has the best Ofsted, or simply where all their friends are going), and we want them to succeed – academically and socially – once they’re there. These are straightforward aspirations that seem simple enough, but in reality are often beset with stress, worry and difficulty.

There are a myriad of reasons to consider tutoring: to boost a child’s confidence, to support their learning if grades are slipping or to stretch an able child. But broadly speaking, parents who opt for tutoring fall into one of two categories: those seeking to boost their child’s performance, to give them an extra ‘edge’ in the context of huge competition – and those with children who struggle in a particular area and need the individualised support that their school teachers (valiantly coping with perhaps 30 or more pupils) may not be able to provide.

“There simply isn’t a level playing field out there,” one mother, who lives in Bushey and has a daughter in Year 5, tells me. “There’s such a demand for the good schools in the area, and so many of them are academically selective.” Her daughter will be sitting the South West Herts Consortium academic test (the local version of the 11+) in September. “I know for a fact that almost every other child will have been tutored. I’d feel like I’m failing her if I don’t do the same.”

Tuition at this stage is a particularly flourishing business. While independent preparatory schools actively prepare children for senior school entrance exams (the clue is in the name), maintained schools are under no obligation to do so. In fact, verbal reasoning (VR), a major component of most 11+ tests, is not part of the national curriculum, and therefore not taught at all. “This is such a ridiculous situation,” another mother confides. “The government seems to think that by not teaching VR, it will allow the brighter children to shine naturally; when in fact it’s the reverse. It’s the children from better-off families, who’ve clearly been tutored, who do well.”

Meanwhile, other parents may be concerned that their child is falling behind their peers, either in one particular subject or across the curriculum. If this is the case, it’s better to seek advice from the school first. Make an appointment with your child’s teacher to find out what strategies they are putting in place to help your child catch up. If you still feel extra help is needed, then ask what areas a potential tutor should focus on. A good tutor will be grateful for any information the school can give them – and a good teacher will appreciate being kept in the loop.

One parent, whose eight year old daughter has been diagnosed with dyslexia, is thrilled with the dramatic improvement in her child’s attainment since she has been attending weekly ‘play and learn’ after-school sessions in Watford. “I feel that the tutor has ‘got’ my daughter, that she understands how she needs to learn. My daughter loves the centre and loves the work she’s doing.” Critically, the little girl’s form teacher has also noticed an improvement, and reports back that she’s now capable of doing extended work.

It’s certainly important for the child to ‘click’ with their tutor, so that they’ll look forward to their sessions. We all recognise that a happy child learns best. It’s a good idea to ask for a one-off taster session before committing to a course of lessons for this very reason.

There are also different types of tutoring to consider. The traditional scenario is for someone to come to the pupil’s home to provide one-to-one sessions, but there are lots of centres offering small group lessons too. Both methods have their advantages. While individualised, tailored support has obvious benefits, some children may thrive on competitive group dynamics, or from bouncing ideas off like-minded peers. Sage Ruparelia, an experienced maths teacher, and founder of Tuition Works, explains: “In a group, the teacher can do more: interactive demonstrations, for example.”

So how can you find the right tutor, and what else should you be looking out for? Glynis Kozma, who has been both a teacher and a tutor, and now works as a education journalist, advises parents to seek through recommendation, “perhaps asking around amongst any families you know with children at the schools you’re hoping to get into.” If that draws a blank, she suggests going through a reputable agency, where tutors on their books will have been thoroughly vetted. In terms of safety, it’s essential, at the very least, to check they have an up-to-date certificate from the DBS, the Disclosure and Barring Service, which has replaced the Criminal Records Bureau.

At the moment, the tutoring industry – despite being worth an estimated £2 billion per year, according to a 2016 Sutton Trust report – is still surprisingly unregulated. This means almost anyone can set themselves up in this field. Don’t be afraid to ask potential tutors lots of questions about their qualifications and experience. If they are former teachers, check they are fully on board with the ever-changing national curriculum. It’s so important that their input complements your child’s schooling, rather than risking any kind of confusion.

And as for ‘how often?’, Sage is firmly in the quality over quantity camp. “It’s better to go for one hour a week, spread across the year, than cram, cram, cram. We find that those students who have been receiving tutoring at a steady pace will retain their learning, as opposed to those who are packing in information at the last minute.”

But, as Sue Palmer says, ensure that there is balance in your child’s life too. Academic success is important, but so is the opportunity to enjoy a range of activities, whether that’s Scouts, swimming or just having the time to stare into space. As Sage concludes: “It’s our job as parents to bring up all-rounders. Those with a balance will communicate better – on paper, with their friends, and ultimately with future employers.”

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