In this post we look at the essential questions parents should ask tutors to make sure they get value for money.
A few weeks ago I caught up with an old friend from university who now works full-time as an (exceptionally successful) 11+ tutor, and we compared notes on how to best prepare pupils for the 11+ maths exam. I discovered that she had a completely different approach to mine when teaching algebra. I had always felt that making sure my pupils really understood how to use variables and equations was the way to go, whereas she instead advocated a quick and simple trial and error method, where the candidate puts down a guess and sees how close they come to matching the numbers in the question. I spent a while trying to decide which of us was right, and I’m fairly certain now that I know the answer: both – or neither — of us. After all, the best 11+ candidates would probably know, and be able to use, either method.
It has also occurred to me since that we could have had the same conversation about pretty much any subject. There are a thousand and one ways to teach, and a thousand and one tutors out there, each with their own base of experience and following their own methodology. This of course isn’t a bad thing. One of the great strengths of private tuition is that tutors have the freedom to teach in their own way and to match that approach to their pupils, resulting in education that is more creative, passionate, personal and engaging that it can be in the classroom. The problematic flipside, though, is that no guidance for tutors means that there’s no-one to correct them when they’re teaching something incoherently or even incorrectly, to tell them when they’re boring or long-winded, or to keep tabs on them and make sure they’re preparing adequately for their lessons.
This can make choosing a tutor difficult. How can parents be sure they’re getting someone who knows what they’re doing when most of the tutors out there have no educational training and no-one to observe or supervise them?
Thankfully, despite the absence of regulation in the tutoring world, there are still ways of working out which tutors are worth investing in and which aren't. In today’s blog post I’m going to highlight three questions all parents should ask tutors to work out if they’re worth hiring or not, and these questions should be asked irrespective of whether you are choosing a tutor via an agency such as UK Study Centre, finding one independently, or having a tutor recommended to you by word of mouth. By asking these questions parents can establish whether a tutor is safe to work with, is competent, and whether they're the sort of person that will really connect with their pupils.
This first question requires little explanation. This first thing parents should make sure of when choosing a tutor is that he or she has a clean criminal record, and they can check this by asking to see a Disclosure and Barring Service check. I probably don’t need to tell you that you should not hire a tutor who doesn’t have a DBS. The check is legally required for anyone that works with children, and not making sure that your tutor has one could put you and your child at risk. Any serious tutor has a DBS and will be able to quickly send it to you when asked. At UK Study Centre we don’t work with any tutors that don’t have a DBS.
At UK Study Centre we do not employ tutors with less than three years’ experience of tutoring or teaching in their subject. We follow this policy because we know that there is nothing more important in tutoring (and in life in general) than experience.
To illustrate why this is so important, here’s a little personal anecdote. I started work as a full-time tutor at the age of 21. I had done some tutoring here and there before then, but my first real job as a tutor came when I moved to Moscow to work full-time for a lovely Russian family. The family had twins and were looking for them to move to schools in London at 11, and my task was to prepare them for the entrance exams. On paper I was a good catch. I had a sparkling school academic record from the kinds of schools the family was interested in, a degree from Cambridge, could teach the kids a number of musical instruments and languages as well as their academic subjects and was young and energetic. All very encouraging. That last point was key though – I was young.
In my first year I made a lot of mistakes. I asked too much of the children. I gave them tasks which looking back I realise were, quite frankly, pointless. I lacked emotional maturity and occasionally lost my temper too easily. I tried to teach them together (tutor’s tip: trying to teach twins at the same time is insanity) and became exasperated when our lessons were ineffectual. For a very long time I felt as I wasn’t making any progress at all. I’ll admit that I also did do a lot of things well: lessons were well structured, the children’s English and maths improved, and I got along with the kids. But it was only after a long time that I really began to feel I was tutoring well. By the time I left Moscow three years later I was a completely different tutor – and person – to the one I was when I arrived, and it’s that kind of experience that is invaluable when choosing a tutor.
A tutor must have a track-record. Note that this question is not, ‘do you have a good degree?’ (I’ll come to that below), but rather, ‘do you have proof of real-life, I’ve-done-this-before experience?' If you’re hiring a tutor from an agency, don’t just ask for a CV. Ask for references. Ask for evidence of exam success. How many pupils of the same age group has the tutor taught? How many got into top schools or universities? What methods does the tutor use? Knowledge is power, and to make sure you’re getting good service you need to be bullish about these things. At UK Study Centre we don’t mind getting these questions; we welcome them, because if we can answer them honestly and say that our tutors are experienced and have a good track-record, we can rest easy knowing that the tuition we’re providing is high-quality and that our clients are getting the best possible service.
This final question might surprise you but it’s incredibly important. Tutors are real people, and parents can tell a lot about them by the things they do outside of teaching time. Crucially parents can also identify whether tutors will have good teaching skills by their hobbies, and should look for tutors that participate in the arts (and particularly theatre and music), journalism, volunteering or politics.
Why these hobbies? The reason is that they all involve interaction with other people and the ability to empathise with others’ experiences. Actors, for example, must interpret both the characters that they play and the audience they play to. Their concern is people, and particularly how people think and behave.
I also especially advocate tutors that have experience in theatre or music because they will be natural performers. If you think for a moment about your favourite teacher at school, you’ll quickly see that it they weren’t your favourite because of the strength of their degree. Rather it was because of how well they could communicate whatever it was they were teaching. The best teachers are the ones who stand up on their desks, or blow things up in test tubes, who threaten you with a 17th-century cutlass for not handing in your homework, or who dress up in a full set of Roman legionary armour (all real examples from my own education.) They’re the performers. The really insane ones.
Parents should look for hobbies and interests that show the tutor can perform and empathise, and a degree from Oxford or Cambridge is no guarantee of that. It might prove that the tutor knows what she’s talking about, but it doesn’t prove that her pupils knows what she’s talking about.
The golden combination in a tutor then is a strong academic background with the capacity to perform and empathise. By all means look for tutors with the former, but be wary of ignoring the latter. A pupil might have the most knowledgeable tutor in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything if the pupil doesn’t find his lessons interesting.
Raph is a tutor and consultant at UK Study Centre.