Exam pressure: What the private tutor saw

Exam stress At the end of your tether? Tutors have become a part of the exam season

Levels of exam angst will be steadily rising for many students. Their ordeal by exam paper is about to begin.

It's also the time when many families will be thinking about some last-minute assistance. They will be searching for the emergency breakdown service of the education world, the private tutor.

Tutoring is one of the great invisible forces in the education sector. It's difficult to measure its impact because it operates outside the formal, state-regulated education system.

But this "shadow education" is big business. In places such as South Korea and Hong Kong high proportions of pupils have private lessons. The most successful tutors have rock star status with glossy advertising campaigns.

It might not be fair, but tutoring is an inescapable feature of competitive education systems across the world. If there's a race for better grades, from London to Los Angeles, Moscow to Manila, someone will be offering private lessons.

Helicopter tutors

But what is it like from the other side of the fence? What do the tutors see when they look at the families they've been hired to help? And who are these "super tutors" who have sprung up alongside the super rich?

Lessons at home Parents can get caught up in a tutoring "arms race"

Murray Morrison probably wouldn't like the title super tutor. And he would be too discreet to mention any A-list families he has worked with.

But after 15 years teaching and tutoring, based in London, he has first-hand insight into how it looks when the tutor rings on the door-bell and steps inside.

Is it all really about the parents? Are they trying to succeed through their children?

"The whole thing about 'pushy parents' is that everyone wants the best for their child. And they want their child to come out of school with the best grades, because the system measures your performance in terms of those stark numbers," he says.

"But helicoptering in an expensive tutor to do hours of extra work can make the kid miserable, it can put undue pressure on them."

'Lack of confidence'

It might not even be the parents doing the hiring.

"You come across tutoring jobs, maybe an international business person or oligarch, where you're hired by proxy by a concierge service, to essentially babysit. They want a London super tutor for their kids.

"And you come across lonely children. They spend their time with tutors rather than friends. There are 10-year-olds with personal trainers who take them to a park.

Start Quote

Murray Morrison

It's always the child's practice that makes a difference, not the tutor alone... It's not rocket science, it's about organised, rigorous practice”

End Quote Murray Morrison

"I get asked to find tutors for three-year-olds. Absolute madness."

Before hiring a tutor, he says, parents should talk to the child's teacher.

"If children are unhappy about their ability or struggling, it's important to address it." But, he says, parents should get the teachers' advice before reaching for a tutor.

"Getting a tutor in too early confirms the idea that a child isn't good at a subject. The psychological impact can be quite negative.

"I've seen this quite a lot recently, where I've been asked to find a tutor for a child who is 'really lacking in confidence'. But getting lots of tutoring can be the cause of the lack of confidence.

"It's a case of using with caution."

If parents do want a tutor, he says, it is important to have a "really clear game plan about what you want to achieve".

And any improvement is going to depend on the child working hard. Mr Morrison says for every hour of tuition there should be five hours of practice.

"It's always the child's practice that makes a difference, not the tutor alone."

But he says that grades can be raised. "It's not rocket science, it's about organised, rigorous practice."

Mr Morrison formerly represented Great Britain at fencing, even though he wasn't good at games at school, and he says tutoring is another case of well-organised, targeted effort.

Parents under pressure

Mr Morrison says that the hyper-rich have a "sort of relaxation" about their children's results in school. But the real pressure is on parents who are not so rich and famous.

Failing an exam Too much tutoring can take away confidence, says Mr Morrison

"They are putting all their money into getting their children the best education they can. They are under enormous financial pressure."

The extra lessons might be targeted at getting a child into a sought-after, high-achieving school. They get caught up in a tutoring "arms race", but, he says, this can be tough for a child who isn't really that clever.

"Where you get real dangers is when a short, sharp, shock of tutoring is successful enough to get a child into an academic school and then they're stuck there under enormous pressure to keep up.

"It can be the parents who are picking a school for themselves, rather than for the child. You see children in these hot-housing schools, after a hard day they come home and need more tutoring. You have children with no outside life at all.

"Parents would do well to protect their children from that kind of competition."

Uniform approach

There can also be some odd insights into wealthy international households.

exam pressure The exam season can pile on the pressure for families

"I was asked once on arriving at someone's house to put on a uniform. It was a kind of livery of the house." He refused and says it's important that tutors are not treated as a "servant or a nanny".

"It has to be someone a child looks up to for guidance. It's important to instil a respect for academic authority."

Another suspect request, from someone with "a lot of resources at their disposal", was to spend a whole term helping a university student.

"I was asked if I could tutor someone at university who needed to go through a maths course, and could I go and live there for a term? Which I didn't do.

"Reading between the lines," the implication was the tutor would do all the work.

He is also annoyed at parents who think tutors might be useful to get good marks in homework or coursework.

"If you're doing a child's homework you're doing them a massive disservice. You're not helping, you're damaging them," he says.

He is also sceptical about the amount that "super tutors" are meant to be charging.

"I see articles about super tutors with astronomical rates. But I certainly see those same tutors working for a lot less."

In an unregulated business it's also quite possible that some tutors hike their fee depending on the client.

The best tutors? It's not those who charge the most, he says, but those good enough to make sure their services are eventually not needed.

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