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A helping hand | The Good Schools GuideWhatever your reason for using tutoring services outside of school, you’ll want to get the best bang for your educational buck. Our quick checklist will make sure you find the most effective tutor for your needs.

  1. Why does my child need a tutor? Whether it’s to prepare for an exam, to help after an extended absence from school or to boost a problem area, have clear objectives in mind to ensure you choose the right private tutor for your needs.
  2. How do I find the best tutor for my child’s needs? Nothing beats word of mouth so ask around those for those coveted local tutors’ details. Talk to your child’s teachers – many offer home tuition outside of school. A good tuition agency will match the right tutor to the child and top agency tutors are vetted and trained. Tutoring centres are big business – look for them in local ads. Online tutoring is also growing and can be a convenient solution.
  3. What should I beware of? Always check references and DBS records meticulously. Watch out for agencies asking for an introductory fee or those tying you into a ‘package’ before you’ve met the tutor. Make sure you read the small print before committing to a hefty contract. If using website agencies make sure they are regulated.

Does your child need one?

For some children a tutor is essential as they are off school with a long-term health problem. Occasionally, families who are travelling for an extended period take a tutor with them to keep junior’s brain ticking over. Others need someone to maintain schoolwork during a difficult period – an exclusion or a family break-up. School-aged film stars have their own tutors who keep them up to speed in between takes.

But when, and how, should you give your child a helping hand?

People often use a tutor:

  • At age 7 to ensure a child is up to speed for prep school assessments.
  • In year 5 (aged 9/10)  to prepare a child for entry, at 11+, to the local grammar school or selective independent school. Most grammar schools (and some independents) test verbal and non-verbal reasoning as well as maths and English.
  • In year 6 (aged 10/11) aged to bolster basic maths or English competence ahead of KS2 examinations.
  • To assist with common entrance subjects -  perhaps to ease the anguish of algebra or Latin.
  • To shed light on a tricky GCSE topic.
  • To ensure A level grades are a match for UCAS offers.
  • To improve schoolwork following a dip in a grades on a school report.
  • To put a youngster back on track after a dodgy exam result.
  • Following a bout of illness or unexpected family set-back.
  • When a specific learning difficulty is suspected or diagnosed.

Schools do not ‘test’ children of under 5 – they may look at how they interact with adults and with other children, whether they can concentrate, whether they enjoy playing or listening to a story, but tutoring a child of this age is nonsense and you should be suspicious of those who offer it.

We are sceptical of those who offer coaching in verbal and non-verbal reasoning. There are test papers in these things available from our online bookshop and it is usually sufficient to give your child plenty of practice while gradually encouraging her to up her speed. If a child has real problems with these papers, you are probably wise to have her assessed by an educational psychologist. 

Children who are off school for prolonged periods, for example through illness,should be helped by the local authority’s home tuition service, and this should be your first line of enquiry. Whether they provide what you need is another matter.

Finding a tutor

Word-of-mouth is the most effective and popular way to source good tutors especially as, generally, the best tutors do not work for an agency – they don’t need to.

A good tutor, especially in English, maths or science, is a local treasure. Their name is guarded jealously by parents who, are often less than keen for other people’s children to have the advantages they are buying for their own.

How and where do you find top-notch tutors?

A lively local network, and simply knowing people, is the way to find out who in your area is reliable, friendly and has good results.

However, the best local tutors are usually very busy and may well have waiting lists. If you need someone who will be flexible on account of your son’s karate competitions or music lessons or the au pair’s English classes, you may well find yourself relegated to the bottom of a long waiting list. It’s also more difficult if you are out at work all day or new in an area and don’t know who to ask about good tutors. Try talking to your child’s teachers, if they are prepared to discuss your concerns. Many teachers may be happy to help a little outside school or know of other people who tutor. However, all too often, sadly, the teacher is defensive and feels you are being critical, or it is the teacher herself who is the problem and your child needs some support to overcome the deficiencies of the school provision. Parents whose children have just done the relevant exam are often the best source.

Tutor agencies

If you deal with a professional, painstaking agency which takes a pride in the tutor/tutee relationships it sets up, then you could find yourself with a choice of highly experienced, hand-picked and expert tutors, custom-built to meet your own child’s particular needs – rather than the local, all-purpose, tutor who takes on all-comers.

Around 10 per cent of tutor/tutee arrangements are made through agencies, though this percentage is probably markedly higher in London. Employing a tutor from an agency has advantages and disadvantages.

You are not getting a teacher recommended to you by someone you know. However, you may well get a choice of tutors and can pick the one who seems most compatible.
An agency tutor will almost certainly come to you, whereas experienced local tutors generally prefer children to come to their houses – where they probably have stacks of material.
Around 90 per cent of tutors recommended by agencies teach in the homes of their tutees or on the agency’s own premises.

The best agencies take immense care over fitting as accurately as possible the tutor to the tutee. These agencies will select carefully, interview, vet and train their tutors and do careful follow-ups to make sure everyone is happy. Other, generally less expensive agencies, have a large list of tutors and who cover a wide geographical area. They are dedicated and hard-working and take enormous pride in the service they offer but do not provide the face-to-face relationship offered by the more exclusive agencies. They meticulously check references, DBS records, etc but, partly because of the size of their lists, conduct their personal interviews only over the telephone.

The fee scale varies greatly too. We have heard of anything from £15.00–£80.00 an hour. Some try to grab an introductory fee or try to tie you into accepting a ‘package’ of lessons before you've even met a tutor – beware! Some offer a free introductory lesson to see how you get on – we like this! Some agencies make both tutor and client sign an immense and scary-looking contract while others look bemused when you ask about contracts and then chortle helplessly. Whether you find this lack of regulation healthy and a refreshing change from the red tape which loops itself round every other area of normal life, or whether you consider it a scandal in this day and age is up to you.

A* for e-tuition?

Ask whatever you like from the comfort of your own PC or phone – you can get, in some cases, instant answers. A bit like keeping your tutor in a drawer and taking him out whenever you need him to explain something.

A recent innovation is online and telephone tuition offered by companies, principally based in India, who coach one-to-one according to each student’s individual needs. There are now a number of these companies and take-up is growing, especially in America. Clearly there are benefits including, in some cases, instant answers. However, if the UK tutor industry is unregulated, there are even fewer checks you can make on these companies and on whoever is assigned to you.

There can be no guarantee they are familiar with UK syllabuses or methods of teaching, that their qualifications are sound and that the claims they make are verifiable.

There are other downsides – some of the companies work US time and you can only access them after 3.00pm; some students find the Indian English hard to understand. However, the instant availability of competent exponents of maths and science might be a real boon to a struggling pupil whose school is failing to fill posts in these key areas, and it may well be that this industry takes off here as in the States.

Website agencies

The best of the UK website agencies – those which act like newsagents’ advertising boards – have their place. Generally, the arrangements made between parent and tutor will be cheaper than those provided by more personal agencies.

The parent can interview or chat to as many potential tutors as they like before agreeing to start tutoring.

Website agencies often list tutors all over the country, whereas most of the elite agencies, while often having access to tutors outside their core area, do tend to specialise in one part of the country – usually the south-east. However, there is likely to be little support from website agencies if things go wrong. Such companies take little or no responsibility for the tutors they list and will not have undertaken, for example, the police checks that all the reputable, more complex, agencies now do routinely. The risk, therefore – but also the potential success – inherent in this kind of tutor/tutee relationship is down to the parent.

A quick surf through websites calling themselves tutor agencies is salutary.

Overt child molesters advertise on the un-moderated websites. No regulation or inspection of these websites exists. Caveat emptor!

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