Could you show me how to write this essay?’ my pupil asks, her wide-eyed expression trained hopefully on my face.
A 17-year-old A-level student I have been coaching is meant to be working on her English coursework. The only problem? She has no intention of doing it herself.
Once I restructured a paragraph in her ‘first draft’, carefully explaining my thoughts behind each sentence, she simply asked if she could ‘watch and learn’ as I wrote the rest. When I declined, her mother fired me — saying she wanted a tutor who would give ‘more hands-on help’.
Welcome to the panicked, and ethically dubious, world of parenting during a pandemic — when exams are cancelled and a child’s future rests on grades handed out by teachers.
Emma Irving (pictured) who has been fired by a parent, believes cancelled exams have intensified the drive to hand in faultless coursework
You might think that facing no A-levels or GCSE exams this summer would relieve the pressure on young people this spring. Instead, the drive to hand in faultless coursework — one of the main tools to assess a child’s ability — has intensified to a dizzying degree.
Indeed, any form of homework is now under such powerful scrutiny, there is little margin for error.
And that’s where I come in. A private tutor, I charge £70 an hour to coach children to their highest potential. Tutoring agencies, like the one I work for, have seen a huge spike in demand during the pandemic. One report suggested parents are paying as much as £1,500 a week for tutors to help their homeschooled kids catch up.
Once the preserve of the super-rich, private tutors are now a must-have for any aspirational parent intent on getting their teenager into a top university, considered by many to be a necessity for career success.
And that race to the top begins with a baby’s first wail.
One advertisement I saw recently asked for a tutor to assist a three-year-old boy in interview preparation for a top kindergarten.
Requests for help with five-year-olds are commonplace. Children in nappies — yes, nappies — are being coached on times tables.
According to the Sutton Trust, more than a quarter of children in England and Wales aged 11-16 received some private teaching in 2019 (file image)
Of course, this bodes well for private tutors like me. I started tutoring English in my last year of Oxford University to make pub money, and it quickly turned into my primary source of income.
Tutors earn between £40 and £200 per hour; with three years’ experience, my rate is about £50 per hour, with an agency fee of £20 on top.
I have been flown out to high-end holiday destinations to teach grammar to ten-year-olds, explored the finer details of Bleak House in a palace in Rome, and taught an A-list celebrity’s seven-year-old to read in a hotel penthouse in Barcelona.
Increasingly, however, it’s not just the very wealthy who hire tutors. In 2019, more than a quarter of children in England and Wales aged 11-16 received some private teaching, according to the Sutton Trust; in London that figure rose to over 40 per cent of children, a figure that has doubled in the last 15 years.
British parents now spend an estimated £2 billion on private tuition each year, not including sport or music. But there has been an explosion in demand since lockdown, as we get closer to ‘exam by teacher’.
Emma (pictured) said one family asked her to spend an hour ‘tweaking’ their daughter’s coursework, without even pretending they wanted her to learn from the process
The academic term for tutoring is ‘shadow education’, but more and more it’s stealing the limelight — never more so than in the current murky world of coaching teens on what is meant to be their own work. For helping a student ‘redraft’ their coursework can quickly slip into rewriting it.
When I signed up with another family, they asked me to spend my hour on ‘tweaking’ their daughter’s coursework at home; they didn’t even pretend they wanted her to learn from what I was doing, instead focusing only on the end result.
Laura, a student I tutored for several years, even asked me if I would be happy to jump on Zoom while she completed a timed, examined assessment for a highly competitive university place. I declined each of these requests, but it’s easy to see why tutors might feel they simply cannot say no.
Tutoring is my friend Freddie’s main source of income and he relies on some families for several hours’ worth of work per week. He tells me that a mother offered him £1,000 to entirely rewrite an essay that formed part of her son’s history coursework. She was worried he had received a bad mark for his first draft.
Emma’s tutoring friend Freddie, was offered £1,000 to entirely rewrite an essay for a boy’s coursework (file image)
Another parent explicitly told him he wouldn’t continue teaching their B/C-grade 17-year-old unless he guaranteed an A*, essentially pushing him into doing it himself.
‘It’s so awkward,’ he tells me. ‘I think it’s so bad for the tutees, but I don’t feel I can afford to say no. If I don’t agree to do it, they will just find another tutor who will.’
Will, an Oxford graduate, has been tutoring a boy called Toby for three months. Each time they finish their Skype tutoring, Toby’s mother jumps on the call to plead with Will to do more hours with him: ‘I heard Toby’s best friend is having three hours after school each day. I’m not a pushy parent — I just want the best for him.’
One of my most rewarding jobs was with an 11-year-old who was being bullied at school. Over a few months, I slowly coaxed him out of his shell and his grades rose as a result. But when he failed to get into a top secondary school, his parents fired me and hired another tutor.
It made me question whether they ultimately cared more about an elite CV than their son’s real happiness.
Names have been changed.
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