Who are they?
Bonas MacFarlane Tuition
1a Gertrude Street
We have visited Bonas MacFarlane’s offices. In addition, 22 clients and 21 tutors have completed an on-line survey. For an explanation of the different tutor sections in the Good Schools Guide see which tutor agency?
Bonas MacFarlane staff
BM is directed by Charles Bonas, Will Petty and David Wellesley-Wesley, although it’s Harry Cobb who is in the driving seat, managing the business, with two assistants to help him place and select tutors. The rest of the business is made up of around 20 staff, based in offices in London, Dubai and Almaty (Charles’ wife is from Kazakhstan) and representatives in Edinburgh, Moscow, Lagos, Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur. Charles - ex-Harrow and Oxford (history), and a qualified teacher - started tutoring when he was studying law and has since clocked up 24 years of tutoring experience. Although he now only tutors and mentors a handful of children, he remains hands-on when it comes to client involvement more generally. ‘I’ve seen other tutor agencies where the director divorces themselves from client contact and I think that’s a recipe for disaster. I talk to parents, schools and children on a daily basis,’ he says. Will, also a highly experienced tutor, worked and trained at The Dyslexia Teaching Centre, and is now the company's chief assessor and lead consultant on school placements. David founded The Independent Schools Show and British Boarding Schools Show (their sister companies, that have enabled them to build up relationships with hundreds of schools) and works on relationship-building with schools. And Harry was a full-time tutor for nearly three years before joining BM in 2013.
It’s also worth noting that three of the staff are recent Teach First teachers and another three have been senior university consultants at schools, with around 60 years of experience between them. They also have 10 school placement consultants (including an ex Harrow housemaster).
We met with Charles and his staff in their modern Battersea offices, overlooking the Thames. He is ambitious, determined, loquacious and opinionated, deeply knowledgeable and very savvy about everything to do with schools and tutoring. Definitely a man you would want on your side if yours is not a straightforward, ‘Please, daddy, may I have a little help with probability?’ need. He’s particularly voluble about mentoring (which they provide as a separate offering), confidence-building, study skills, his tutors and his clients: ‘It’s all about getting to know the child in their family environment.’ Clients range from middle-class professionals to the super-rich – some using the neighbouring helicopter landing pad just to visit BM. But Charles is no snob and talks with missionary fervour about all his work, including charitable: ‘I am passionate about seeing children grow in confidence and succeeding,’ he told us, giving example after example.
‘They strike the perfect balance of friendliness, efficiency and professionalism and are always willing to go the extra mile,’ one tutor told us about BM staff, reflecting the views of most. Meanwhile, parents praise the ‘unpushy,’ ‘highly professional’ and ‘responsive’ team, whom they also refer to as ‘really friendly.’
What do Bonas MacFarlane offer?
They cover every aspect of educational need from weekly or residential tutoring to mentoring, as well as school and university placement. If they don’t have a right person for the subject you’re after, they’ll find one, and they are not averse to offering tutoring in ‘softer’ subjects including life skills and art. In fact, one tutor told us how he suggested building up a BM art programme to Charles. ‘He allowed me to bring in a small team of really well-qualified art tutors and it’s going really well,’ he says. Although not as hot on group courses as some other big agencies, they do run them for university preparation and they join forces with TeamCamp to run summer camp courses for 7+ and 8+. They have built a particularly strong reputation around helping overseas pupils to adapt to British schools – with Charles himself taking on the guardianship of overseas children at school here. Children as young as four are tutored by BM (‘more structured play, really’), right up to university age, but rarely adults.
They are expert in USA college admissions – an increasingly popular option – and have Ivy League-educated specialists in American university applications and SAT preparation – very much a growth area. In fact, they have contracts with schools including Epsom and Elysee to provide this.
Mentoring – which can be weekly or residential - has three goals (academic, pastoral and extra-curricular), with the mentor working with the whole family, often overseas. ‘It’s unusual to find a teenager who is so intrinsically driven that they get the maximum out of their school, with no extra help,’ explains Charles. ‘So our mentoring programme involves a detailed assessment, then focuses on confidence building, enhancing study skills and the pupil's approach to learning and guiding the student to ensure his or her goals are achieved.’ Often, he says, parents approach them for tutoring, but realise their child will benefit more from mentoring.
A particular strength is their partnerships with top experts in specialised fields – they have a partnership with the Dyslexia Teaching Centre, for example, plus close relationships with educational psychologists. ‘We often act as an educational GP, referring people onto these professionals,’ explains Charles. Some tutors have SEN training, although Charles takes the view that ‘it’s such a spectrum that if you look hard enough, everyone has SEN, so we use multisensory methods with all tutees, just ramping them up for those with a diagnosis.’
For ordinary hourly lessons, they cover central and inner London. For day-long assignments they cover a circumference of 100 miles around the capital. For weekly assignments or longer, literally anywhere, with recent examples including Mumbai and Sardinia. Online tutoring also available. Greatest demand, surprise, surprise, for maths and English and mostly at 11+, though they are finding a growing call for help at 7+ and 8+ as everyone tries to beat the all-change scrum later on. BM prides itself on its proficiency at this level and has a high success rate at getting tutees into their first choice school.
Bonas MacFarlane background and basics
Established in 1998 by Charles, this is the seriously upper crust of the consultancy and tutoring industry, blended, kneaded and done to a crisp according to the precise educational recipe for your privileged progeny. Tutors – of whom there’s a core team of around 50 - all come by recommendation and are then selected by interview and a proven track record. ‘Some are people we’ve tutored ourselves,’ says Charles, who points out that they’re now on their second and third generation of tutees. Parents can’t seem to praise them enough. ‘We have liked and been impressed with every tutor BM has supplied. It is very pleasant to have them in the house. They have been kind, intelligent, helpful and punctual and they have all been positive and encouraging to my children,’ says one.
As part of the interview process, BM discusses their expectations and systems, meanwhile the tutor prepares an hour’s tutorial. For more specialised assignments, they will hunt heads if necessary. References are scrupulously taken up and a DBS disclosure is insisted upon. Tutors are mostly between 24 and 34 (‘The average age is increasing as we get more career tutors,’ says Charles) and all have degrees. Most have been educated privately, although one tutor told us, ‘I went to a comprehensive school and while some agencies are snobby about that, it’s quite the reverse at BM – they were pleased as they like a variety of backgrounds.’ All tutors, however, must have graduated from a Russell Group university, with around 60% Oxbridge educated. All have A grades in the subjects they tutor.
BM then trains them up for the specific job they’re assigned for, all backed up with carefully tailored packs of appropriate material/syllabuses, etc, plus everyone gets a training manual. ‘For tax reasons, we can’t insist on training, but it’s on tap, and there’s good take-up,’ says Charles, pointing to their regular workshops run by an educational psychologist. ‘I did an all-day one a few weeks ago and we were exposed to things you just wouldn’t get in other agencies – it was brilliant,’ one tutor told us, while another said, ‘I even had books couriered to me by BM when I needed them for tutoring that day.’
Nearly all teaching is done in pupils’ homes, and the first session is considered an assessment. ‘By the end of it, we should be clear about the tutoring objectives,’ says Charles. BM keeps in close touch with their select tutorial stable – which includes an eclectic mix of ex or current opera singers, city types, doctors, writers, actors and even teachers, many from top schools and with lots of impressive experience – the common denominator being an enjoyment of teaching one-to-one and watching the startling improvements this can make. Very little active recruitment of clients or tutors happens – it’s mostly word of mouth, and many stay with BM for years on end. Tutors put in monthly reports, are regularly coffeed and lunched. And – if the relationship between Mr AN Tutor and Tarquin doesn’t work out? – ‘the customer’s always right’. ‘It happens, although rarely,’ says Charles. Clients can expect to hear from BM directly after the first tutorial and regular follow-ups after that. ‘If a tutor wants to see us, we’ll make sure that happens within 48 hours,’ says Charles.
BM works more collaboratively with schools than most agencies we’ve visited, some of which approach him for holiday tuition and some of which he’s formed joint enterprises with. That said, plenty of schools don’t welcome them. We think it’s a tricky area. On the one hand, we find it somewhat alarming that children attending these phenomenally expensive and highly-aspirational London schools should need parents to pay for extra tutoring. On the other, you could argue (as Charles does) that all youngsters can benefit from one-to-one academic attention outside their normal learning environment and that tutoring is best achieved when tutors liaise with teachers regarding progress. ‘I think schools need to get with the programme – tutoring is efficient and healthy,’ laments Charles. ‘And as I often say to the heads who lambast tutors, the only way to get rid of the need for private tutoring is to bring tutors into the schools, Oxbridge style, or for schools to get rid of their entrance tests and properly assess children over longer periods, observing how they work etc.’
Bonas MacFarlane - Money and small print
Right at the top end, as you’d expect, although a substantial proportion of the hefty fee may well be travel if the tutor for Tarquina happens to teach in Fulham and you live in Weybridge. Standard hourly rate ranges from £70 to £90, depending on the tutor’s experience, and there’s a daily rate of £300 based on a minimum of five hours of tuition, spread over the day. Tutors remit a percentage to BM, size dependent on circs. No contract and there’s a one-off arrangement fee of £192. Where an assignment is complicated and requires a client visit to make an assessment, a discretionary fee of £450 may be charged. ‘Yes, it’s expensive, but like most things, you get what you pay for,’ one parent summed up. Unwilling to divulge its commission rates which apparently ‘vary and are complex’.
Bonas MacFarlane say
‘Well over a dozen tutoring companies have been born out of Bonas MacFarlane, many of whom sell themselves as “small scale,” insisting that it’s better,’ says Charles. ‘But we have found that by growing, we have the benefit of employing over 20 consultants, including trained teachers. As such, we are able to integrate our services, which offers greater value. Four out of five candidates who applied to Stanford won a place in 2016. Only 12 were accepted in the whole of the UK. If we were small, this would simply not be possible.’
There’s an impressive amount of pro bono and charitable work going on behind the scenes – including sponsoring St Cuthbert’s School in Fulham £20,000 to help their high achievers and after-school clubs; building a school in Northern Cambodia to the tune of £30,000; and supporting aspirational students through A-levels and university guidance at the Harris academy and Barking Abbey School. Perhaps even more impressive is that BM don’t shout about it. ‘You should do this kind of thing because you care, not because it looks good on your marketing materials,’ says Charles.
If you want honesty and frankness, Charles is your man. ‘The hardest thing with tutoring is the control. It’s not like a school, where I can pop my head in classrooms at any given moment,’ he admits. ‘I actually don’t find the after school tutoring that interesting,’ he adds. ‘It’s functional. It’s the residential tutoring that I’m passionate about – the kind where you sit down for a few hours at a desk, then debate at lunchtime and visit a museum in the afternoon. It instils a real love of learning, when you get it right.’
These are long-term relationships they’re building, says Charles. ‘As we build up a better idea of a young person’s cognitive profile, the better we can help them. I’ve been looking after one person off and on for 21 years.’
Parents pay tribute to the professionalism and care taken. ‘BM plans tutorials with meticulous detail, yet let the child dictate the pace – it’s a delicate balance, but one they get just right,’ says one. ‘The tutors never talk at the children – they work with them, using the same techniques as experienced teachers,’ says another. One family told us BM were ‘extremely accommodating of their son’s hectic sports schedule,’ while another told us they ‘helped us at extremely short notice’. A particularly nice story comes from one woman who asked BM to tutor her daughter in Italian, ‘so she could communicate better with her grandparents. It was for fun, really, but they taught her so well that she wound up taking her Italian GCSE. She even did it a year early and got A*. That was from an hour a week.’
Tutors are similarly keen, stressing Bonas MacFarlane’s loyalty and commitment to their staff. ‘BM have greatly expanded my horizons as a tutor, offering me roles and opportunities that would simply not have been possible other than through them,’ says one. ‘From my experience, this agency is the best in London,’ is a typical observation.
This is the Savile Row end of things – tailored, elegant, cut to your measure from the best materials. In the end it may still not suit but, if it does, it will be a perfect, hard-wearing and an excellent fit.