Who are they?
SENsational Tutors Ltd
8 MAIN STREET
We have met with SENsational Tutors’ staff. In addition, 37 clients and 49 tutors have completed an on-line survey (sent to 132 clients and 57 tutors) and we have followed this up with additional short phone interviews with some of those surveyed.
SENsational Tutors staff
Unusually (to say the least), the story begins at a campsite disco in Holland when founder and director Joanna Gibbs was a child. ‘There was this boy with Down’s Syndrome that nobody wanted to dance with,’ she recalls. ‘He had this infectious smile and that was it for me.’ SEN has been her passion pretty much ever since. In many ways, she grew up with SEN – not only are there a lot of physical disabilities and mental health issues in her own family, but she remembers with evident joy watching everything from wheelchair basketball to one-armed archery while volunteering at the Rotary International disabled sports championships.
Plan A was to become a speech and language therapist but following a degree in linguistics and phonetics (Leeds), she worked for a few charities, as well as the NHS Children’s Challenging Behaviour Team, alongside SENCos, specialist nurses, educational psychologists – and it was here that teaching started to beckon. It was a calling that took her round the world. She taught in a Northern Indian slum, the American School in London, Chadwick International School in South Korea, South Australia and finally Jakarta – gaining a breadth of experience in learning and behaviour support along the way. It was upon her return to the UK, while working in a small independent school in Camden, that she started privately tutoring students with autism, dyslexia, speech and language delay and other needs; within two weeks was fully booked. ‘I began to feel sure there must be other teachers out there who shared my vision – those who could quickly develop a trusting and meaningful relationship with students with SEN.’ She was right and thus it was that in May 2017, SENsational Tutors was officially born.
Joanna – who has a PGCE (with QTS), MEd in inclusion, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and 15 years’ experience of working with students with SEN – still runs the business single-handedly. ‘Caring but utterly professional,’ is the consensus from tutors and parents we spoke to, although one tutor felt it could be somewhat ‘corporate’– ‘Perhaps the personal touch could help a bit more sometimes.’ ‘Passionate,’ ‘fun’ and ‘efficient,’ said other tutors and parents. ‘There is no agency quite like it. Joanna thinks of everything and goes the extra mile with every role,’ said one. ‘I wouldn’t want to go with anyone else because she looks after you so well.’
Joanna lives with her fiancé and, when time allows, makes the most of the London scene, especially music and theatre. She’s keen on tennis too, playing twice a week.
What do they offer?
Specialist SEN tutoring from qualified teachers with up to 40 years’ specialist SEN experience. Early years, primary education, 11+, secondary education including GCSEs and adults up to 25 are all catered for – age 4 tends to be the youngest. English and literacy (phonics, spelling, writing, reading, inferring skills and comprehension) - along with maths and science – dominate. SENsational’s tutors can also help with boosting self-esteem and confidence, developing study skills and revision techniques, social skills and social interaction skills (including turn-taking), behaviour and self-regulation support among many other areas (see website for full list).
Pupils are based across the UK, as well as nationally and internationally for online tutoring. Tutors work in homes, schools and residential placements. They liaise closely with parents and often collaborate with teachers, SENCOs, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, educational psychologists and other professionals to ensure a seamless use of best strategies and interventions. ‘They think about the whole child, supporting any relevant behaviours – it’s unlike any other kind of tutoring I’ve experienced,’ said one parent.
As for conditions covered, you name it – there’s almost certainly a tutor with extensive experience, primed and raring to go. Dyslexia, autism (including high-functioning), ADHD, ADD/ inattentive ADHD, anxiety, dyspraxia, speech and language delay including non-verbal or minimal verbal, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, sensory and auditory processing disorder, SEBD (Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties), SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs), global delay, Down’s Syndrome, challenging behaviour, PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), brain injuries and brain damage, executive function challenges, epilepsy, attachment disorder and cerebral palsy all feature. About half have an EHCP and around 20 per cent are in special school, the remainder in mainstream. Half are in independent schools, the rest in the state system.
The approaches and resources used are wide-ranging and impressive – everything from role play to pre-teaching and from touch typing to memory games. Visual and pictorial support strategies are common, as is assistive technology eg text-to-speech and C-Pen. Music and rhythm techniques can come in handy, as can zones of regulation to support emotional regulation. The idea of one-size-fits-all is alien to these tutors – everything is tailored, everything is personalised.
Background and basics
Over 70 tutors had worked with 162 clients in the 12 months up to our visit - a number that’s growing as word spreads about this niche and much sought-after agency. The tutor list reads like a Who’s Who from the world of SEN, including qualified heads of school, deputy heads, SENCos, certified psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, certified ADHD coaches, CBT trained qualified teachers and reading recovery teachers. Some have trained therapy dogs who attend sessions with them.
For every tutor that responds to Joanna’s Indeed ads, she gets an email from one who’s heard about her via word of mouth (‘SEN is a small world – everyone knows everyone’). Once she’s approved a candidate’s CV (and apparently nine out of 10 are rejected), she meets (not interviews, she says) them in person or via Zoom, asking about SEN training and experience and quizzing them about strategies and interventions. How are you able to boost the confidence and self-esteem of students with SEN? How passionate are you about teaching students with SEN? What SEN do you specialise in, autism, dyslexia, ADHD, language delay or other? Etc. All tutors provide at least two professional references, at least one client or parent reference, an enhanced DBS, plus all the usual proof of passport, certificates, proof of address etc. Parents can also leave reviews.
Once on SENsational’s books, the tutor’s profile appears on the website from where parents can pick their own or ask Joanna to help (sometimes a bit of both). Families (the student too, in some cases, which we think is brilliant) get to interview tutors on their shortlist via Zoom, then make their choice, with Joanna checking in after the first session and regularly thereafter. Few, if any, are disappointed. The Good Schools Guide has never had such detailed feedback for a tutor agency review, especially about individual tutors, of whom parents are clearly in awe, with tale after tale of them turning their child’s life around. One told us, ‘Her personality is an excellent match for our son; she is engaging, positive, calm and firm. She sets excellent boundaries for him, which he clearly respects. She is able to maintain his focus on learning tasks for extended periods of time. She respects his interests and gently extends them, encouraging him to try new approaches to activities he enjoys alongside trying completely new things.’ Another commented, ‘I used to get stressed because my son was often not ready for any learning for at least 15 minutes into the session, but our tutor allows for that and never rushes him.’
All the parents we spoke to, bar none, told us how tutors spend extra time (often a lot of it) providing feedback at the end of each session. One explained, ‘My son’s tutor is not only a fantastic tutor but I now also consider her a friend. She is so giving with her time and goes above and beyond what is expected by staying back if work hasn’t been completed and by offering to help with the family – she even includes my younger son in lessons so he doesn’t feel left out. She’s been such an asset and I have no doubt will help our son succeed in his 11+.’
SENsational Tutors is a member of The Tutors Association.
Money and small print
No registration fees or minimum number of sessions. Hourly rates (set by the self-employed qualified specialist teachers) from £80-£150 per hour. Tutors pay a percentage of this (normally 25 per cent) to SENsational Tutors as commission. The company says it has introduced a ‘transparent split-payment structure in December 2022, which has helped to develop trust between all parties.’ Some parents told us they would like to see more accessible rates and one said the company wouldn’t agree to dropping down to fortnightly sessions to save money (Joanna explains, ‘It’s absolutely not to do with the money - children with SEN need routine and structure, otherwise it affects their progress and anxiety’). But others pointed out that you’re paying for a heck of a lot of training and experience, ‘These are not your run-of-the-mill tutors and are worth every penny,’ said one. In some caseslocal authorities pay, in which case the LA sets the rate. Travel expenses are almost always included in the fee but check with your tutor; ditto for the cancellation notice period, which each individual tutor decides.
SENsational Tutors say
‘Every single child and young adult with SEN should be able to fulfill their dreams with the right specialist and bespoke one to one support. My mission is to demonstrate and deliver this hope to parents and others. It’s about breaking down barriers, boosting confidence and self-esteem, and tutors developing a holistic understanding of every single student so that they can help them to unlock and fulfill their true potential.’
A set-up so superb and so clearly desperately needed that you can’t help wondering why there’s nothing else like it around. And believe us, there isn’t. If anyone knows their onions regarding SEN, it’s Joanna, who also cares deeply about the tutors and families she works with. Honesty, integrity, dedication, passion, openness, innovation – all were mentioned time and again by those involved with SENsational Tutors. One parent told us, ‘If there was a box for “outstanding” in the survey, I’d have ticked it every time.’ Tutors are equally smitten, with one reporting, ‘As a SEND specialist, it was an absolute joy to find SENsational Tutors.’