In Defence Of Private Tuition - Oct '17

By Emma Williams MTA
“Private tuition can be harmful to the long-term academic prospects of children, a leading London headteacher warned today.”

A recent article in the British press employed the usual tone of melodrama that is standard for reporting on educational issues. The article – of course – lacks nuance, and the quoted head teacher of South Hampstead High School has even recommended tutoring on some occasions.

The rhetoric of school-teaching is that anything and everything is possible. We are expected to subscribe to this mantra, and to suggest otherwise is to admit that we are willing to let the children down – not a comfortable position for any of us. We strive for outstanding practice in every lesson, and every child must have his or her particular needs fulfilled.
We must provide stretch and challenge, scaffolding and support; every lesson must be tailored to the diverse needs of each individual member of the class and every lesson must be reflected upon and refined. And we try. Oh, how we try. But the reality is that sometimes it’s not enough.

As a result of the high expectations that are placed upon us, it is easy for teachers to feel threatened by the very existence of private tuition. I have experienced this myself only recently, when I watched a boy who was struggling in my subject transform his performance as a direct result of working with a private tutor. It was a humbling process to witness, and I don’t deny that for a short while I felt rather dismal about my own apparent failure as his classroom teacher. But as a private tutor, I have seen the game from the other side of the fence. I know that what I can do with a child in a regular series of bespoke one-to-one sessions bears little resemblance to what I can achieve in the mainstream classroom.

Outstanding private tuition means developing the ability to read each person closely; as a tutor, I can watch for every tiny non-verbal cue that a child is giving me: every shift in the chair, every bite of the lip, every furrow of the brow. How often must I miss such nuances in the classroom, due to the sheer number of faces in front of me? And every missed moment is another tiny chink in that student’s progress, another fissure in the delicate and ever-evolving construction of knowledge and understanding. If I thought too much about it, I would go mad.

I am not unsympathetic to those educationalists who have concerns about private tutoring. In stark contrast to the case of my student whose progress was transformed as a result of tuition, I have also come across cases when a child has been thoroughly let down by a tutor with no professional experience. Yet the main objection against private tuition raised by the quoted head teacher is not a lack of professionalism on the part of some tutors; rather, it focuses on the assumption that parents want to problem-solve on behalf of their children. In truth, no matter how much a parent might wish it to be so, private tutoring is not a magic solution; it is merely an opportunity, with which the student has to engage in order to progress.

The tutees that come to me are often in a state of despair. More than one parent has described the gut-wrenching anxiety and floods of tears as a child finds themselves getting further and further behind their peers. My subject (Latin) is obscure, and few parents are blessed with the knowledge to help their child through the quagmire of this difficult and unforgiving discipline; so they can watch in despair while their child suffers, or they can find a compassionate and competent professional to provide the right kind of support for them. As one parent put it to me, “you have turned dislike and dismay into enjoyment and enthusiasm.” Sounds like something worth paying for.

Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. Find her @Latin_Tutor or www.latintutoring.co.uk


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