Who are they?
Unit 3D Hillgate Place
18-20 Balham High Road
We have met Mentor Education staff. In addition, 22 clients and 22 tutors have completed an on-line survey.
Mentor Education staff
For Mary Lonsdale (BA English & classics, Leeds Uni; ICAEW fellow), owning and running this agency is a breath of fresh air. Having started out in chartered accountancy, living the corporate high life working at the likes of KPMG and Boots, then later setting up her own accountancy firm after her first child, she grew to loathe it because she found it ‘so dull’.
So when she spotted an advert on a ‘businessesforsale.com’ type website that promised five hours work a day and only during term time, she pounced. The tutor agency, she discovered, was being sold by the owner, a one-time geography teacher, who had founded it in 1982 – around the same time as Top Tutors (now closed) and Fleet (the three together becoming the North London ‘possy’ of tutor agencies).
‘The first thing I noticed was how much the owner cared about the tutors, who were nearly all trained teachers,’ recalls Mary. ‘Knowing teachers were poorly paid, she gave them good quality work at a good rate. We became good friends and I bought her out in 2014.’
Now a six-strong team, they all work in a Scandi-style (‘I got fed up of the masculine environments of accountancy’) open-plan, serviced office in Balham. There’s Clare Rees, part-time head of teacher recruitment, Yasmin Orchard, part-time head of additional needs provision and two full-time client managers – Edward (Ed) Cooper and Rachel Arbuckle. Plus, a head of marketing about to join when we visited.
Parents speak highly of all of them. ‘They’re professional, friendly and efficient,’ said one. ‘There’s nothing that could improve about this business – you just pick up the phone and they help,’ said another. The customer service is, agree parents, is ‘personal’ and ‘superb, from the initial contact right through to the feedback from tutors’.
Tutors feel similarly, in particular praising Ed. ‘He’s so good – really on the ball, playing to my skills with the jobs he gives me and is very responsive,’ said one tutor. Another told us, ‘In the past, it could be difficult to get hold of anyone, but I think they were just understaffed – Ed changed all that,’ said another.
There have been no written complaints during Mary’s reign, although she admits to occasionally getting shouted at by clients, including by a ‘comedian who said the tutor wasn’t funny enough and a woman who said her tutor should have been prepared to start the lesson 40 minutes late because she got home 40 minutes late’.
What do they do?
All London postcodes (and sometimes beyond) can access at-home tuition and from further afield for online tuition – the latter, now accounting for 10 per cent of the business (and growing), is popular among ‘younger generation digital natives and moody teenagers who just want to be in their bedroom’ and ‘international families looking to keep up with the British syllabus whilst abroad.’
Around half the pupils (whose minimum age is 6) get help in 7+, 11+ and 13+; the remainder seek support with GCSEs, iGCSEs and A levels. Nothing wild and wacky on offer - ‘We were asked yesterday if we offered yoga tuition, then later chess tuition – “no” and “no” were the answers,’ says Mary. Nor do they offer residential placements or home schooling, although they have placed the odd tutor in certain subjects for kids out of the school system.
SEN is a forte – they have oodles of highly qualified and experienced SEN teachers and they’ve recently started offering dyslexia consultations with a lead researcher in special needs at King’s University, who is also a lead assessor at Dyslexia Action. As such, they’re often contacted by SEN departments of schools. They also work with local authorities and virtual schools in London, notably Barnet, Islington and Kensington and Chelsea and recently have placed multiple tutors to support, teach and mentor children who have suffered due to the Grenfell disaster. ‘Our teachers love this kind of work, where they feel they can make a real difference.’
A recent rebrand has seen the company change name from London Home Tutors to Mentor Education – firstly because they worried the words ‘London’ and ‘home’ don’t reflect the growing online tutoring and secondly because ‘the heart of our mission is to help children holistically, contrary to the problems of hot housing and the over working of children, particularly linked to the 11+ for day schools in London.’ Say, for example, your child hates maths – they’ll try and reignite enthusiasm for it, not just get them to pass exams. Also on offer are 11+ and GCSE workshops based at Dulwich College School.
Background and basics
Eighty per cent of the 250 ‘live’ tutors (they are more on their books) are qualified teachers who teach their degree subject; the remaining 20 per cent aren’t trained but still teach – a typical example being a PhD student who takes seminars. Most are either at the beginning of their career ‘when they have the energy for extra tutoring’ or heading towards retirement.
‘My son needed a tutor who could build up his self-belief and confidence and they did just that,’ said one parent, with plenty of others also praising the ‘delightful’, ‘highly professional’, ‘amazing’ tutors. ‘Our tutor made the learning fun and didn’t just run out after the session – he spent time filling me in on how my daughter was getting on,’ said one. ‘The tutor got the pace just right, telling us – and he was right – that we’d gone in too hard with past papers. He slowly built up our child’s confidence and didn’t miss a trick, for example for ensuring no minor marks were lost for things like handwriting,’ said another. ‘There was a level of understanding of our daughter’s needs that we haven’t received elsewhere – we can’t thank our tutor enough.’ And so on.
Tutors apply through the website and around half make it through the recruitment process, which kicks off with submitting qualifications, two recent teaching references (‘one will never do, regardless of the experience’) and enhanced DBS certificate (‘or we get one for them’), among others. Once documentary hurdles are passed, they meet all their prospective tutors in person (a few of the longer-standing tutors told us they’d been recruited by phone, but that was under the previous owner) where they look for ‘bright and interesting personalities, warm and friendly people who engage with their students and make learning enjoyable and accessible.’ Tutors told us the process feels ‘reassuringly thorough’ and ‘smooth’.
All jobs are hand matched – with none of the blasting out of jobs to all tutors, as with so many agencies. ‘We tried it for a week and it was a disaster,’ says Mary. ‘We found it favoured younger tutors who constantly check their smartphones, whereas our parents really value the experience of heads of department and senior school teachers with 20 years’ experience under the belts but who may not get the chance to check their phones so regularly.’ In any case, adds Mary, you have to consider the type of family – ‘if a tutor has a long beard and wears a fleece, he might not be right for a very formal family, for instance, even if he’s Oxbridge’.
‘Ed is amazing at finding me pupils who I know I’ll like and in the right part of London,’ said one tutor, while a parent said, ‘they listen to what you’re after and ask a lot of questions so as to find just the right person’.
Parents review their tutor after three lessons to ‘nip any problems in the bud’; tutors told us this works well. ‘I only ever had one bad client, but they used this early communication to sort things out,’ said one. All parents are also asked for feedback once the job’s finished, although some parents told us they’d prefer ‘the agency to check in once in a while during the placement.’
No training on offer to tutors (though watch this space as that is set to change), although resources are regularly made available and all tutors adhere to the Tutors Association’s code of ethics.
Money and small print
Clients pay a one-off £50 registration fee once they’ve been matched with a tutor that they’ve spoken to, liked and booked a lesson with. There’s no charge for further charges for siblings or multiple tutors.
Lessons start at £55 an hour for a tutor who isn’t a qualified teacher and at £65 for a qualified teacher. Some tutors who have a demonstrable higher skill or track record at getting kids into competitive schools charge more – for example, they currently have a prep school deputy head and head of maths at a top London prep who they charge out at £115 per hour. Mentor Education takes £25 per hour commission, although sometimes slightly less or more depending on the overall fee. For the workshops, it’s £285 for 11+ and £325 for GCSE – both three-day courses. Tutors get monetary incentives for referring qualified teachers or families for subjects they don’t teach. Parents and tutors sign standard T&Cs (safeguarding being seen as the most important bit).
Mentor Education says
‘More than just grades going up or exams passed (although these are of course important), we want to help children improve their focus and concentration, ignite a life long love of learning and help them cope better with stressful situations such as exams and school moves. Our teachers give children one to one attention, tailored learning and subtle mentoring meaning that their behaviour at home and school is always positively affected.’
Holistic in their approach (reflecting their recent name change), as well as ethical (it’s no coincidence they landed the Grenfell work), say parents and tutors. So if you’re the kind of parent that believes confidence building is a key part of a child’s journey to academic success, and you’re attracted to highly principled companies, then you’ll be right at home with Mentor Education.