Who are they?
5 Blythe Mews
Tel: 0207 602 5310
We have met with Keystone Tutors staff. In addition, 88 clients and 53 tutors have completed an on-line survey.
Keystone Tutors staff
Founder Will Orr-Ewing is something of a legend in this industry. The old Harrovian was just 21 when he founded Keystone in 2007 and was the first to publish the names and biographies of his tutors on the website, as well as being credited in the national press for the rise of the so-called super tutor (‘high-powered twenty- somethings, tailored to show your child the way to five As at A-level’) towards the end of the noughties.
Will’s latest move has been to employ his own career tutors. Exclusively employed by Keystone, this highly-trained posse of 60 (so far) do a big chunk of Keystone’s tutoring and are a far cry from other agencies, whose tutors are freelance, often working across multiple agencies. It’s not that Keystone doesn’t use freelancers too (‘particularly good for less common subjects’ and because ‘we have some fantastic freelancers who don’t want to be employed or full-time’), but ultimately Keystone wants 85 per cent of its tutors to be PAYE. No wonder that Will, renowned for his commitment to professionalising the world of private tutoring, was snapped up to sit on the board of The Tutors’ Association, including writing their tutoring standards. But he’s no Big I Am – to the contrary, Will exudes affable, zen vibes and effortlessly and unaffectedly brings impressive acumen to tutor-based conversations.
Will’s prep school buddy Josh Pull – equally posh (Eton educated), but less talkative and more earnest – joined in 2009 as his business partner, following a few years in banking. Both have BAs in history from Oxford and have tutored regularly since the inception of Keystone, though do so less today. Both cover strategy and vision, but while Will looks after promotion, Josh is the operational guy. Having Keystone co-led by someone who is quiet-natured but super-focused on the ‘boring’ aspects like efficiency, processing, policies and overall quality is doubtless a cornerstone of their success.
This is a big outfit, with 16 staff in addition to the fully-employed tutors, who are based in a bright and airy converted mews office in Brook Green. Downstairs are reception and two small classrooms; upstairs is open-plan ground control; and up a spiral staircase on the third floor is what Will refers to as the ‘staff room equivalent’. Ed Richardson, director of education, has a masters in teaching and learning from Oxford and both runs the recruitment and development of tutors and advises families on choosing UK schools and universities. The rest cover everything from school consultancy to HR.
Tutors told us the ‘young, buzzy office with a real get up and go attitude’ runs like clockwork – ‘communication between tutors, the company and clients is always very clear and regular’, ‘the staff are efficient, candid and helpful’ etc. And clients – mainly families in central London with kids at private schools - are equally thrilled, calling them ‘thorough’, ‘really speedy’ and ‘very pleasant’. ‘They’re fantastic all round from initial enquiry to back office support to the tutor herself,’ said one, while Will is described as being ‘an incredible listener and imparts his sage advice in a genuine and warm manner’.
What do they offer?
You’d think, being the size they are (60 full-time tutors and 220 freelancers), that they’d cover the lot. And some. But in fact, they keep things simple by preparing for exams from 7+ to A level, with more than three-quarters of their work in English, maths and science, although they do plenty of Latin, French, history, geography etc too. Less mainstream subjects sometimes unavailable eg economics, psychology. University application advice, including Oxbridge, is offered (including directly to schools).
Tutoring is by the hour, either in families’ homes (mainly in zone 1, especially Kensington and Chelsea) or (especially since COVID) online (including group lessons which are an ever more significant part of their offering, with emphasis on GCSE). Online isn’t just popular in the UK - Keystone tutors across 50 countries worldwide, mainly south east Asia (Keystone has small offices in Singapore and Hong Kong) – ‘they have a whiteboard that both parties can annotate at the same time, and be zoomed in and out as necessary – brilliant!’ said a client, with others praising the fact that ‘they cover any time-zone’. Keystone’s offices are used for families based outside London and for home-schooled families (a small part of their work, usually where children are temporarily out of school).
The fact that Keystone’s mission statement has always been to legitimise and professionalise private tutoring means they won’t tutor under-6-year-olds, nor do they stray beyond university age. SEN is not a specialism, although they have a few SEN trained tutors for the milder end, and will occasionally suggest regular tutors for milder cases if they’re of the right disposition – patient, kind and with wacky ways of teaching to help a child with dyslexia, for example. No residential tutoring, bar the odd existing client that wants a tutor on holiday.
Background and basics
Will wanted to be a writer, ‘so tutoring felt a natural fit’. But almost from the first lesson, he was ‘more impassioned by the tutoring than the writing’. When demand exceeded supply, Keystone was born.
Growth was organic but rapid. The company doubled its size year-on-year in the early days, with Will doing what most agencies do – loading up their books with exclusively freelancer tutors. ‘But more than we’d like let us down, perhaps leaving a family a few months before exams or only tutoring for two years then leaving,’ says Will. A business trip to New York in 2012 was the game changer – ‘over there, full-time career tutoring had been the norm for 20-25 years’. Keen to improve quality control, Keystone wasted no time in taking on their first career tutor, then another four in 2013 and now they recruit 10+ a year.
Career tutor profiles are varied, but mainly fall into three categories - ex-teachers (including heads of departments at top schools) who loved teaching but hated the politics, all-weekend marking or the sheer number of kids; academics who’ve done their PhD but don’t want a career in academia; and graduates from top universities who are attracted by the flexibility. ‘Career tutoring fits nicely with the millennial working model – lots of autonomy, non-hierarchical and non-corporate,’ claims Will. Parents love it – ‘we know they’re getting dedicated tutors for the long-haul’ – and the tutors come highly trained, having had to attend a two-week academy before they even start, plus there’s CPD and lesson observation – ‘in other words, all the good bits from being a teacher’, as one tutor put it. ‘It was very quickly apparent how much more committed our tutor was to those we’ve had from other agencies,’ said one parent.
It may be that the best fit for you is one of their freelancers (a mixture of self-employed full-time tutors and those working in industry, but not many classroom teachers as ‘we worry the employer always has final call, such as insisting they attend a parent/teacher meeting,’ says Will). These tutors are, according to clients, ‘first-rate’, ‘very strong’ and ‘very reliable’, with most working exclusively for Keystone.
Recruitment is not for the faint-hearted, with 30-40 tutors taken on a year out of 800 applicants. Careers tutors (if they make it that far) go through three interviews – a discussion of what it involves, teacher practice lessons and academic testing in their subject, and a character interview with Josh and Will (including scores on eg professional, likeable, inspiring, exam-savvy, organised etc). Meanwhile freelancers get the second two interviews and don’t have to score quite so highly. Enhanced DBS, two references (both followed up) and qualifications check all prioritised. ‘Many agencies ask you to do a mock lesson, but Keystone went a step further by, for example, asking me to mark a piece of writing that was good but didn’t show up what a GCSE marker would look for,’ said a tutor.
Keystone has a mantra of never initiating the end of the client’s initial call, meaning you get as long as you need to explain your requirements, after which you get a detailed job sheet, with goals, to double check before it forms part of the hand-picked matching. Will says it’s mainly down to temperament – everyone knows their onions subject-wise, but will the child suit a zippy extrovert or more of an introvert, for instance? ‘Keystone goes the extra mile to match a great tutor with the student and if the fit isn’t right, they’ll fix it,’ said a client.
Clients praise the monthly reports, although some tutors describe them as a ‘box ticking exercise’ that ‘needs more flexibility’. Keystone keeps contact with clients after the first hour, first 15 hours, then every month. For tutors, there are resources available and bi-annual meet-ups, although some would like more meet-ups and be able to share ‘the resources that we spend hours creating’.
‘The tutors are extremely knowledgeable and the lessons very well planned,’ a client told us. ‘They assessed my daughter’s understanding of the subjects in the first few lessons then set the level right to penetrate further in ongoing lessons.’ Another told us, ‘My daughter had developed a phobia of reading and the tutor shifted something so she really blossomed’.
Some tutors would welcome more means-tested rates ‘as the tutoring is pretty inaccessible to middle and lower income families’ but Keystone’s do-gooding focus is currently pro bono work – including its own Pro Bono University Preparation Programme which has so far achieved three Russell Group offers for more disadvantaged pupils. We also heard from some freelancers who’d like more training – ‘sadly not possible,’ says Will, ‘as we’ve been told we’re not legally allowed to train freelancers’.
Money and small print
A registration fee of £96 (VAT incl) is charged once the placement goes ahead. This is a one-off fee for the whole family. Tutoring fees are £80-£165 an hour (VAT incl), with the average family paying around £80 an hour. Travel included. Career tutors get paid £37.50-£80 an hour, with a year-on-year pay rise and a 600 hour minimum contract, although they usually wind up doing nearer 900 hours. Freelance tutors get between £35-£75 per hour. Tutors and clients sign T&Cs, including a 48-hour cancellation policy (although they’ll probably be lenient the first time – main aim is to stop repeat offenders).
Keystone Tutors say
‘Full-time career tutors enable us to make good on our hope of professionalising tutoring – we are the only organisation we know that offer proper full-time career tutors.’
‘Our commitment to ethics mean we hold ourselves up to the same standards as other professions, such as law or teaching – we turn down inappropriate work, such as work with very young children or an inappropriate amount of focus (eg homework) and like to think a headteacher would approve of every lesson we deliver.’
‘You don’t feel plugged into some pre-existing programme – they listen to your issues and address them very specifically,’ said a client, with parent after parent telling us their child passed the exam in question, often with flying colours.
Tutors talk of Keystone’s ‘integrity’ and ‘professionalism’ and say they ‘treat us as partners’. ‘They are a group of deeply genuine individuals who put quality of service and ethical practices ahead of business concerns, in contrast with other tutoring agencies I’ve encountered,’ said one.
This is the BMW of tutor agencies – wow-factor quality, innovative, always evolving, an authority in the industry. It doesn’t pretend or want to be Ferrari – rich jet-setters and Russian oligarchs aren’t their target market. That’s not to say you won’t still pay a premium for Keystone – and it’s certainly higher-end – but you’ll get your money’s worth, with a journey that’s a clear cut above the norm.