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Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better in the world of tutoring

By Kate Hilpern

Expensive products and services are often branded as better quality, more exclusive or more bespoke. But the priciest things in life are not always better and no more so than when it comes to tutoring.

Not that you’d know it from some of the parents we talk to when we review tutor agencies. ‘I know it sounds silly, but if tutoring is cheaper, I can’t help thinking it’s not as good,’ said one last week. ‘I’d rather pay more and know I’m getting the top service,’ another told us.

We hate to break it to you but yes, it is silly and no, you’re not inevitably getting a superior offering just because you’re paying top whack.

We have, for example, found no marked difference in satisfaction levels from clients who use agencies that charge a hefty registration fee and those that charge no joining fee at all. And there have been countless instances when we have found the same (or better) outcomes for families that pay thirtysomething pounds (or less) an hour compared to those who pay two, three or even more times as much.

Moreover, we have found no evidence to suggest that tutors’ credentials are inevitably less worthy when they belong to an agency that charges less. In fact, many tutors work for multiple agencies who charge dramatically different fees – ‘you just accept that you’ll probably get less work with the ones that charge clients more,’ one told us recently.

These conclusions aren’t drawn from a few passing conversations – for every agency we review, our well-researched questionnaires are sent out to all clients and tutors that they’ve worked with in the last 12 months. Many are followed up with further conversations by phone.

Of course, there are exceptions to the idea that you get what you pay for – most commonly when families have tall orders. A deputy head of one of the best preps in the country, who knows the secrets of success to getting into the country’s top senior schools, may be a zillion times more worthwhile than a fresh graduate when it comes to preparing little Henry for that all-important entrance test. Similarly, forking out for an experienced SENCo from a school that excels in innovative ways of supporting children with dyslexia may be lifechanging when it comes to improving the confidence of a dyslexic child, compared to having any old tutor. Then there are the niche requests – someone who wants, say, an Arabic-speaking algebra teacher to travel from deepest south London to a north London home county.

There are other ways in which some (but not all) of the more costly agencies can justify steeper price-tags. The matching process may, for example, be far more nuanced, while some agencies throw in some education consultancy as part of the fee. There are also agencies that only work with experienced teachers (although interestingly these exist at the more affordable end too).

But for every situation in which eye-watering hourly fees appear to be justified and the agency has integrity, there are others that are just trying their luck. You may, for instance, find yourself paying for a swanky London address (and even then, they may not actually be  based there – we’ve turned up to at least two agency addresses where nobody answered the door. In one case, we were later told, ‘Oh, that Mayfair address is just the one that appears in our letterheads, we’re actually based in Battersea’). Or worse, they’re just handing themselves a whopping great chunk of your fee purely out of greed. We’ve come across agencies that keep a third or even half of what the parent pays – the parents are horrified when they find out. Too often, the fee structure has zero transparency. One tutor agency even admitted (and they’re not the first), ‘We’re loathe to publicise set fees because the know that the richer the family, the more they want to pay – it makes them happier and it makes us happier.’

Study after study shows that price matters so much to our understanding of value that many of us rate expensive things or experiences as superior or more effective, even if they are the exact same quality as the cheaper option. One study carried out by Stanford University scholars found that people not only rate the same wine more highly when they’re told it is more expensive, but brain scanning shows they genuinely enjoy the experience of drinking it more. In another study using placebo pain killers, people found a fake pain-killing drug more effective when they were told it was $2.50 per pill compared to participants who were told the very same pill cost only 10 cents.

We are motivated to splurge because we are seeking peak experiences, concludes psychologist Professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School. Given that our children’s education is not an area parents are willing to take any chances on and that tutoring comes with high expectations, it’s no wonder that so many families are not only willing to, but actually intent on, paying top dollar. But take it from us, some tutor agencies are clearly taking advantage of this to the max.

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