British books are shit,” Yusuf says, slamming shut my copy of “Pride and Prejudice”. “Just Western propaganda. Like the BBC, and the Queen.” Pale light filters through the heavy silk curtains. I have been sitting in the pit of this cavernous townhouse in Belgravia, London, for two hours with a meaty 15-year-old who has a passion for £3,000 ($3,800) Turkish vodka and ethno-nationalism (the one, I imagine, fuels the other).
So far, Yusuf has discussed his distaste for British women, the way he gets around masturbation (“It’s not allowed in my culture, so I pay someone to do it for me”) and his ardent belief in a resurgent Ottoman Empire. I am meant to be preparing him for his GCSEs, national exams taken in a range of subjects at the age of 16, as well as the interview process for entry to a new school at sixth form, the final two years of secondary education. “These schools should be applying to have me,” he says. “Can’t we just buy a library or something?”
Yusuf is intelligent enough to realise that tutoring will have little bearing on his life chances. Irrespective of his exam results at any stage, he will enter the family firm and is unlikely ever to be short of money. For Yusuf, the usual motivations for working with a tutor – the promise of gold stars, high grades, top universities and other coveted keys to the doors of success – do not apply. He has seen into the heart of tutoring and his verdict is that it is a sham.
This puts me in an awkward position. Yusuf is not really my client; his parents are. They are paying £70 an hour, but Yusuf is refusing to play the game. I have spent enough time with children to know that he is just a teenager acting out against the demands of a high-pressure education system, doing his best to deter me so that he can spend more time on his Xbox.
What’s also unsettling about his behaviour, however, is that there is little incentive for me to tell his parents about it. For Yusuf’s parents I am one of many members of staff, from nannies to tennis teachers, to whom they have delegated responsibilities since birth. I am certainly not being paid to reflect their failings back onto them. So I plug away, arriving at each session determined to nurture a spark of curiosity and to charm this child into discovering his own academic interests. Whether Yusuf wants me to or not, that’s what I’m there to do.
Tutoring has bullied its way into education systems all over the world with remarkable success over the past two decades. In Britain last year, more than a quarter of children in England and Wales aged 11-16 received some kind of private teaching outside school, according to the Sutton Trust, a social-mobility charity; in London that figure rose to over 40% of children. (Less than a fifth were doing so in 2005, the first year for which the charity collected such data.) British parents spend an estimated £2bn on private tuition each year, not including other extra-curricular activities such as sport or music lessons.
“These schools should be applying to have me. Can’t we just buy a library or something?”
That picture is replicated across the world. A recent research paper points to a rise in the prevalence of “shadow education” throughout Europe. In Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain at least 40% of school-age children have had private tutoring; in countries where there is a lack of faith in the state schooling system, such as Greece, that figure can rise to between 80% and 95% of all children. In much of Asia, private tutoring is routine. Some parents in China spend over $10,000 a term in the build-up to university-entrance exams; two of the biggest listed education companies in the world, New Oriental and TAL Education, are Chinese (they provide tuition and test-preparation). These figures were collected before the coronavirus pandemic but school closures have only increased the pressure to improve home learning.
For some people tutoring is ad hoc, small-scale and short-lived. But not for all. In Britain I have found that the demands a family places on a tutor – typically a privately schooled graduate from a top university – range from the neurotically precise (“we require three hours on sentence structure”) to the dauntingly vague (“to help make school less stressful”).
At one end of the spectrum, tutoring falls somewhere between hand-holding and prison-guarding, with people like me cast in the role of a glorified babysitter: I surreptitiously scroll through Instagram while ensuring all homework is completed on time and without error. At the other, I am encouraged to develop a humanistic approach that emphasises free thinking and personal inquiry. Renaissance-style tutoring promises to help mould a child into the kind of young adult you – or, more importantly, a university admissions officer – might want to sit next to at a dinner party.
Tutoring has risen in line with a cultural shift: university education is now the norm for a larger share of school-leavers than ever before. Close to half of all 25- to 34-year-olds in the 37 wealthy countries that make up the OECD now have a degree. Other countries are fast catching up: by 2030 China and India will account for half of the 300m graduates in this age group worldwide.
Widening access has changed the nature of the competition. Despite the large rise in the number of universities, the same institutions tend to fill the top places in the international rankings. This means that education is now a global battle: far more people in a wider range of countries are competing for slots in the same few, elite institutions. Twenty years ago, America’s Ivy League universities would admit a quarter or more of all applicants. In 2020 Harvard’s acceptance rate hit a new low of 5%.
As society has theoretically become more meritocratic, it has also become more competitive. Not so long ago, having a degree was a passport to a good job. The more common an undergraduate education becomes, the less certainty there is of that outcome. This makes it even more important to get a place at a top institution, rather than a mere middle-ranking one.
Wanting your child to succeed is almost the definition of parenthood (though interpretations of success vary). If a good school begets a good university, a great job, a suitable spouse, house and all the rest, then it’s never too early to start training. Ever more parents, particularly those with money to spare, consider their children to be engaged in an academic arms race. Tutoring is a secret weapon.
Back at Yusuf’s home, our session mercifully draws to a close. As I gather up my books Yusuf declares that he’s going to have to “drop a couple of thou’ to make myself feel better”. He trots off to terrorise the staff of Harrods, and his mother, a woman with the demeanour of a trapped sparrow, comes in to check how it went. “I’m just worried he’ll struggle in the interviews. He’s so humble,” she says. “Could you come to Santorini with us in June to work on his confidence?”
Soaring through Italian airspace, head cushioned by a plush leather seat, I start to suspect I have made a grave mistake. “Allegra’s teacher has been useless this year, hasn’t she darling?” Allegra’s mother flicks her groomed hair over one shoulder. Allegra grunts. Her eyes wisely remain glued to her phone. “Honestly”, her mother continues, “Ms Jacobs didn’t set any half-term homework. Utterly incompetent.” She grabs a passing stewardess and demands a slimline tonic. “So we want you to recap this year’s syllabus, and give a little introduction to next year’s. Two weeks should be plenty of time.”
According to school reports and “the child psychologist”, Allegra is “very clever, gifted”, says her mother, “She’s in the 99th percentile for English, 96th for Maths, so we have a bit of work to do there, don’t we darling?” (“We are a relaxed, informal household,” said the job posting). “But that silly teacher hasn’t pushed Allegra to her full potential, which is where she needs to be if she’s going to have any chance in the 11+ next year.” Her nostrils flare. I make sympathetic noises. The seats are extremely comfortable; the cabin pressure is anything but.
Allegra goes to a top London private school, which means her parents already spend around £20,000 a year on her education. You might think that if her parents had already forked out such fees, they’d consider it the school’s job to enrich her or bring her up to speed in a particular subject. Yet Allegra’s experience is quite common. Children at fee-paying schools receive more extra tuition than their state-educated peers – tutoring is most often deployed for those students who are already advantaged.
At ten, Allegra isn’t even particularly young for extra classes. You see frequent requests for tutors to help five-year-olds prepare to take an entrance exam at seven for what are known as “prep schools” (the “prep” is short for “preparatory”, meaning that they are readying the children for secondary school). I recently came across a request for a tutor to assist with interview practice for a three-year-old boy who was applying to an exclusive kindergarten. The website for one top London tutoring agency, Bonas MacFarlane, carries a tagline, “From cradle to career”.
As society has become more meritocratic, it has become more competitive. Tutoring is a way to hack the system
The industry also caters to parents who want their offspring to go beyond the standard curriculum. One of my friends ran a session on Impressionism for a group of seven-year-olds (every child already seemed to know the term “pointillism”). Another was paid £200 a day to escort a nine-year-old around the British Museum. A company I work for runs online workshops for children as young as eight on topics that range from crime writing to geopolitics; the same firm recently called for a tutor to run a five-week series of sessions with a 12-year-old on “public speaking”, “news/debating” and “ethics and philosophy”. On top of all this tutoring, many middle-class childhoods are filled with sports activities, music lessons and even charity work.
Yet for many children tutoring is about doing more and more schoolwork. I know of an intensively tutored pair of eight-year-old twins who doodle engineering diagrams for fun, know the course requirements for MIT and have better maths skills than most adults. Even when their children are clearly far ahead of where they ought to be for their age, many parents see tutoring as a necessary addition to an already packed schedule. This is a winner-takes-all game, where the stakes seem sickeningly high. The child either gets in or doesn’t – it’s a one-strike-and-you’re-out universe. From that perspective, tutoring is a small price to pay to give your child a leg up. It isn’t exactly rigging the system. But at times it’s pretty close.
Kate, who was educated at a state school herself, has been paying for maths tuition for her privately educated 16-year-old for the past year, ever since a school report predicted her daughter a five in one of her GCSE subjects (the equivalent of a high C or a low B). We often share a joke and a drink, but as we make small talk in the kitchen of her light-filled mews house, I see a shadow darken her features. “Your kids, when they come out of school and go to university, will be competing, literally, with a worldwide community,” she says. “So if you are able to give them the option of achieving really good exam results, which will help them, you do. It’s not a great system, but it’s the system that we’ve got.”
Does she feel sometimes that it would be better to just avoid the rat race altogether? She takes a deep swig of coffee. “I think the vast majority of parents would prefer not to tutor their kids,” she says. “They’re under enormous pressure from a very young age. But if you have a child who has something they really aren’t getting, and it can help them, then you do it.” A grade B in a single subject apparently equates to “really not getting it”.
However socially conscious parents may be, however unwilling to subscribe to the insanity of this competition, the desire to provide children with the best opportunities money can buy often wins out. One father offered me several hundred pounds for an introduction to the headmistress of my old private school (I refused). A former pupil at Eton College tells me that each year the dean of admissions has to turn down “presents” ranging from the sly (an excellent Château Margaux) to the ludicrous (a chalet in Verbier). Eton tells me that gifts from prospective parents are extremely rare and that any offer is firmly declined and logged by the school, in line with its anti-corruption policy.
Occasionally parents go beyond the borders of rationality. One tutor I spoke to, Frank, a graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, was ushered into a dark corner after his usual tutoring session and informed of the masterplan. The tutee’s father confided that “very good doctors” had informed him that they could inject Frank’s forehead, draw out his DNA and re-inject it into his son to “make him more talented”. The father had every faith in this dubious method of transferring genetically attained talent. Alarmed, Frank pretended he was moving abroad in order to leave the family’s employ.
I started tutoring three years ago. I had just graduated from university and I needed a side hustle to pursue a career in journalism while living in London, ideally one with flexible hours, excellent pay and the chance to travel.
I’m not alone in choosing such a path. Nearly one in ten people are unemployed 15 months after graduating, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The average rate for a tutor in Britain is between £30 and £60 an hour, and can go as high as £250 an hour for the most in-demand “super tutors”. Even at the low end this equates to three or four hours behind the bar in my local pub. The fees are comparable elsewhere. In China tutors can demand up to £230 for 45 minutes of work for the richest families. In Hong Kong some top tutors have celebrity status and reportedly earn millions of dollars each year.
I applied for my first job with a tutoring agency much as I would have done for any other, with a cover letter and CV listing my academic achievements (and extensive baby-sitting record). Then I went for an interview in a Notting Hill townhouse. I sat across the table from a red-chino-clad man called Henry, who lazily twirled his pen as he asked me if I knew a “pretty girl called Milly who would have been a couple of years above you at school”. I didn’t, but I did explain that I had heard of the company through a friend. “Ah yes, the good old grapevine. It’s all about who you know,” he said cheerfully. I got the job. After that, Henry would send through listings he thought I might like and then put me in touch with the family. I received no advice on how to structure lessons or talk to parents, let alone how to teach the children.
That’s not how all firms operate. Some agencies interview prospective tutors for around 45 minutes on their approach to teaching, their academic record and their motivations, before asking them to present an example lesson plan. If recruited, tutors may be sent teaching resources, be invited to workshops to improve their skills and offered support in dealing with challenging parents and children.
But the casual application process I went through was not unusual. Much of the time tutoring is unsupervised and unregulated. Even when I get jobs through the most respected agencies, it’s often left entirely up to me how I spend the time with a student. All I have to do is file a monthly report on what we’ve covered. Many tutors work without agencies, finding clients through listing sites, noticeboards or word-of-mouth, and may not be screened at all.
Whatever the circumstances, a question remains about whether tutors are in any way qualified. To teach at a state school in Britain you need an undergraduate degree followed by a full year of training, a three-year teaching degree, or two years on-the-job training with the Teach First programme. To tutor, you just need to find a client.
Arthur is a handsome Oxford graduate with dark wavy hair, a fondness for expensive linen shirts and a huge, self-confident grin. He began tutoring just before he went to university, having realised that he could make £40 an hour teaching English instead of £7.50 an hour for tennis coaching.
“She’s in the 99th percentile for English. 96th for Maths, so we have a bit of work to do there, don’t we darling?”
The rewards aren’t just financial. Arthur enjoys the relationship you develop with a student. “The first couple of people I tutored, I just became really good friends with them,” he tells me. “They’re so sweet, and you’re actually working together towards something. You’re actually doing good.”
At the age of 19, Arthur was flown from London to Beijing to work with ten-year-old Chen for a month. It was his first big job abroad but when he boarded the flight to China he had not yet spoken to a single member of the family he would be working for, and had only a hazy understanding of where he’d be living. His contacts were two Chinese women in their 50s, the proprietors of the tutoring agency, who had only a tenuous grasp of English.
Arthur was met at the airport in Beijing by a driver and taken to a soulless, guarded compound in a wealthy part of the capital where he was installed in his own private flat. He was presented with a Huawei smartphone, an envelope full of cash for “living expenses” and the contact for a chauffeur who would be at his beck and call. He was also given a strange yet touching gift: a bicycle with a Union Jack flag on the seat.
The next day, Chen’s mother outlined the battle plan. Through a pantomime of gesture and emphatic repetition, she established that Arthur’s prestigious alma mater was a “very good English school”. Chen would go there, he was told. Chen’s family had money and ambition – and the British school would give him pedigree. Arthur was the third tutor they had flown out in as many months. He would teach for five hours each day.
Chen was already attending an international school in Beijing, with numerous teachers who were fluent in English. To maximise his chances of getting into his chosen school in Britain, Chen was withdrawn from “silly” subjects like art, drama and sport, and instead spent those precious extra hours cloistered in the school library with Arthur, who would shuttle back and forth on his Union Jack bicycle whenever Chen became available. Though Arthur had far less experience than Chen’s school teachers, Chen’s mother was convinced that if her son spent enough time with his tutor then he would somehow conquer that most formidable obstacle that stood between Chen and greatness: the English social code.
The 19-year-old university student found himself the unwitting headmaster of a modern-day finishing school. Arthur was encouraged to educate the boy on everything from cultural touchstones to eating with a knife and fork. He found this uncomfortable: “What you’re really implying is that his culture is wrong. But that’s what his parents wanted me to teach him.”
He also struggled with coaching Chen for school-admissions interviews. Chen was a cheerful boy with plenty of friends and a great fondness for the two family cooks. But he was unable to muster a single convincing reason as to why he should be admitted to a school thousands of miles away. No matter how many times they practised, when he was asked why he deserved a hotly contested place, he responded with wide eyes and a shrug: “My mother likes it.”
From his family’s point of view, the stakes for Chen could not have been higher. Yet his parents had invested an extraordinary amount of money and confidence in a British teenager with no teacher training. Though this was unsettling for Arthur, particularly because he’d grown fond of his tutee, he had little to lose. Tutoring is unique among the jobs I have encountered in that there are few repercussions for failure.
In the end the long month of tutoring turned out to be pointless. The headmaster of the British school to which Chen was applying came to Beijing for a conference, and a meeting was set up between him and Chen’s mother. She was quietly told that her son’s place would be secure, irrespective of how he performed in admissions tests, so long as a number of financial contributions were made in his name. Nevertheless, Chen’s mother was delighted with Arthur, confident that her son would be able to navigate the upper echelons of British society thanks to hours in the company of a “real English schoolboy”. She celebrated by giving Arthur a rare single-malt whisky. Chen was given a week off tutoring.
Tutors who work with elite agencies are members of a fortunate elite of their own. The vast majority of tutors I know were (like myself) educated at a prestigious university in Britain after attending a fee-paying school. They are usually white. The names of many agencies speak to entrenched class privilege: Oppidan Education, considered one of London’s most exclusive tutoring agencies, is named after an obscure term used at Eton to refer to the main body of pupils at the school. Another London-based agency, Elite Tutors, disregards even that subtlety.
The location of the agency sends the same message. Many British ones have offices nestled in the pretty cobblestone streets of London’s most upmarket borough, Kensington and Chelsea. The head of one tutoring company told me that, for a tutor, living near their wealthy students is “a benefit, so you can drop round last minute if needs be” – a situation that further favours those tutors who are able to afford a home in such a pricey area, or, more likely, those whose parents can. So it isn’t just that affluent children are coached from birth, but also that, later in life, a lucrative form of secondary income ensures that the privileged stay privileged. Social mobility be damned.
Tutoring is another iteration of that timeless phenomenon: the help
This divide is perpetuated by the nebulous role of the tutor. Like Arthur, I have spent weeks living with various families, walking the line between staff and guest, mentor and tutor, friend and disciplinarian. “Tutors are above staff in the pecking order, but below a favourite cousin,” the head of one tutoring company tells me. “We choose tutors who are empathetic people,” says another. “They have to be able to read a family dynamic and slip right in.” Parents do not hire a tutor just because they are good at boosting grades. They hire them because they are a walking, talking embodiment of the kind of person they want their child to become.
For all the veneer of friendship, tutoring is ultimately a transactional relationship. The tradition of live-in servants fell out of fashion in Britain by the 1950s. Yet the better-off continue to be supported by an unseen and unsung army of staff – cleaners, nannies, au pairs. Tutoring is another iteration of that timeless phenomenon: the help.
From the second-floor dining room of Allegra’s holiday home in Rome, I watch as the city unspools beneath me, its long streets stretching out in the evening light. A ripe cherry tomato is mid-way to my mouth when the dinner-table chatter turns sour. “I won’t go!” Allegra exclaims, cheeks reddening. Her mother has just announced that there will be an extra hour of tutoring in the morning before Allegra’s golf tournament.
I look down at my plate. It wasn’t the first tantrum I had observed since we landed in Italy, but there was a desperate note in Allegra’s voice that I hadn’t heard before. “Yes, you will go,” Her mother replies. “Unless you want to end up at some B-rate establishment with no chance of getting into a good university and none of your friends at your school?” Allegra throws her napkin down and storms out. Her mother looks at me: “I’m sorry about this. She’s just too young to realise that it’s the best thing for her.” For all her golf tournaments and academic preparation, Allegra is still only ten.
In “Peter Pan”, the Lost Boys are lost because they live permanently in a child’s world. Many of today’s boys and girls are barely allowed to visit it. On average, 16-year-olds in England spend nearly ten hours a week in additional instruction, either provided by their school or a private tutor, according to the Sutton Trust, a figure that is similar or higher in other wealthy countries.
Over the past two decades, parents have actually increased, on average, the time they spend on child-rearing, particularly among better-educated, higher-earning parents. But much of that time is directed towards defined tasks. Childhood has become target-driven and family time is frequently filled with more studying and extracurricular activities. Increasingly, home is a place where daily pressures are perpetuated rather than released.
I see ever more adverts for tutors whose primary focus is to support a child’s emotional needs. One recent posting described a student with “anxiety issues and a real fear of having a go at something publicly where he might be seen to fail”. The advert continued: “Looking for a mentor to click with him, to support him, to be there as a mentor and guide.” Another ad called for a tutor whom a lonely student “could just have fun with”.
The children are definitely feeling the pressure. Many students I work with admit to using drugs to help them focus more, such as ritalin, a stimulant used to treat attention-deficit disorders. According to research in 2019 by YouGov, a polling company, one in seven teenagers in Britain who had taken GCSE exams in the previous two years admitted to taking a “study drug without a prescription”. It’s a notable departure from the drugs traditionally associated with teenage rebellion.
Tilly is a bookworm: enthusiastic, peppery, prone to furrowing her brow and unexpected bursts of laughter. At ten, she is articulate and intelligent, yet given to chastising herself, so much so that she has started to bunk off maths because she is in the second set. When I meet her, I am struck that she seems to have forgotten how to play. I ask what her favourite book is and she answers “Bleak House”. I ask her what TV shows she likes, and she says she enjoys watching Brian Cox explain physics. I suggest we play a game to get to know each other and she looks at me as if I’ve just proposed setting her exercise books on fire.
Parents hire tutors because they are a walking, talking embodiment of the kind of person they want their child to become
I try to balance our time between going over the areas of maths she finds challenging – shapes, fractions, percentages – with learning about any subject that qualifies as “interesting”. Her eyes grow saucer-like as I explain that the collective noun for a group of ladybirds is a loveliness and that Chaucer is deliciously rude. I ask her to tell me what she wants to learn and we are both surprised by the result: we move through astronomy to black holes to farts to family dynamics. For me, it’s a welcome departure from a life punctuated by bills, deadlines and obligations. Tilly, too, grows eager for our time together, hungry for knowledge that seems so different from that learned with entrance exams in mind.
At its best, tutoring is an intellectual adventure unfettered by the strictures of the classroom or the exam hall. At its worst, it is the parasitic embodiment of a competitive anxiety that has come to dominate education worldwide. I want to teach my students how to follow their passions, how to strive for the life they want, rather than for hollow symbols of success. But in trying to fix the problems that this high-pressure system creates, I recognise that I am profiting from and perpetuating the very world I seek to change. Parents may fret at the thought of their offspring losing out as an adult, but the children? They stand to lose the only chance they have of being a child.
As I step out onto the streets after tutoring Tilly, I look up at the house. Through her window I can see the crisp outline of her profile, a small silhouette curled tightly over a book. I wonder whether she is reading for pleasure or for purpose, what kind of world she is lost in. I hope it is a tale that shows her that facing up to life’s challenges is how all good adventurers are made, a tale that teaches her to become the protagonist in her own story. She moves slightly and the cover of the book is illuminated: it is a textbook on non-verbal reasoning. I turn into the darkening street and walk away.•
Names have been changed
ILLUSTRATIONS: JEAN-FRANÇOIS MARTIN