Back in the days of dodgy dossiers and covert arms possession, I found myself seated near a cabinet minister at the theatre. With an official inquiry underway, and jobs – including his – on the line, most of the audience averted its eyes while hissing “It’s him!”. Against the susurration of whispering grass, R+J, The Splinter Group’s reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, rang true and clear: four schoolboys deploy their own secret weaponry, acting out Shakespeare’s play in their dormitory after discovering a copy concealed beneath the floorboards. The production opens with the pupils conjugating amare in the rote fashion demanded by their strict school. However, it’s through their private, unfettered immersion in the contraband text that the four leads learn what it is to love.
I was reminded of this a few years later when a parent, whose children I was tutoring, described me as the family’s “contraband secret”. How we laughed, as I surreptitiously checked for loose planks underfoot. Despite* being an erstwhile school governor, he had a keen sense of which way the policy winds were blowing, as well as a nose for distant pongs that could put Jo Malone out of business (*delete or not, depending on experience). With education becoming increasingly reductive in scope, he was convinced that more and more parents would seek out independent sources of ‘real’ learning. Walking home the other day, I was reminded of his witchy prescience by the number of tuition centres lining my route, some of which I’m not sure were there when I set out that morning.
Decked in the obligatory primary colours and not-at-all sinister pictures of smiling students, places offering supplementary education are proliferating like Fibonacci’s rabbits. Like the estate agencies whose names they often approximate, with their Primes, Premiers and Rights, they’re to be found in multiples on many a high street. And, like estate agencies, they all seem to be doing pretty well. No surprise, really, given that literacy and numeracy are fundamentals rather than decorative add-ons. It’s all ‘high-stakes’ these days, don’t you know; and, with everyone persuaded of the ills that befall those with less than top grades, additional help has become the sine qua non of getting ahead.
For long the commonplace of the privately educated, tutors have become even more necessary to the same, now that institutions previously accustomed to admitting students on a nepotistic nod and wink enforce more meritocratic entrance criteria (oligarchs excepted). However, it’s the demand for tutors among parents of far more modest means that is, perhaps, the most striking development – a tacit demonstration that, when schools replace departing staff with the cheapest option available, the lacunae of expertise that inevitably appear can only be addressed qualitatively and not, as the DfE’s numerically-obsessed refuseniks would have us believe, by quantity. Moreteachersthaneverbefore is no substitute for qualified, experienced staff who know their subjects inside out.
Assuming, of course, that leavers are replaced at all. With some schools simply distributing departees’ timetables between remainers, the concomitant growth in class sizes swallows up those in need of personalised attention, however differentiated the lesson content may be. So, whether offering a cut-price service at the kitchen table, boasting a website like that of a modelling agency or insisting, as some do, that only high-net-worth parents need apply, the promise of teaching that focuses on the individual virtually ensures some custom to all manners of tutor.
Not only is the change evident in demand; it’s also apparent in status. Once was the time that engaging a tutor was tantamount to insulting the teacher. Now, it’s a reason for staff to exhale in relief and/or send detailed notes about what the tutor should cover. In my experience, this often amounts to requests that substantial parts of the curriculum be delivered – for the first time or, even, solely – by the one-hour-a-week private operator. Resisting the urge to remind them that they can dictate to me when they pay me, I understand the temptation that some teachers in schools must experience, to offload onto a tutor – particularly when the losses they stand to incur, should they fail to make the grades, are as almost as onerous as those borne by their students. For, whatever is stated on paper, many members of staff are now employed on de facto temporary contracts, to be renewed only on clearance of every hoopla and hurdle.
Never mind that they may have been directed to teach far beyond their specialisms; or that the CPD they were promised, to bring their subject knowledge up to scratch, has yet to materialise; or, indeed, that they may not have any qualifications beyond GCSE in subjects for which they are now held responsible. The post-factual fact in our ‘no excuses’ schools is that not knowing is no excuse for not doing and, preferably, not overdoing. Or something. A tutor may have been engaged to deliver an enrichment curriculum, unrelated to exam content; but that’s a matter that can end up neither here nor there in the face of an ever more common phenomenon: which is that many of the old farts now working independently – former occupants of the upper pay scales who were shown the exit door – really do know their alliums and, often, more thoroughly than their school-based counterparts. When jobs and pay rises hinge on results, the temptation to pass off others’ ease with exam syllabi as one’s own must be huge.
Percentages of students achieving 5 good GCSEs fall markedly in some schools when English and Maths are included. How much more would they do so if it were possible to discount the impact of tutors? As long as schools tacitly anticipate that parents will engage private teachers to make up the shortfalls created by questionable staffing practices, the latter will persist. In fact, they may even become official policy. Reform, a respected and non-partisan think tank, has recently suggested that graduate teachers are over-qualified to no good purpose, and that less educated apprentices would make for a more cost-effective labour force. Indeed, Reform goes further, mooting the possibility that the staffing crises currently faced by many schools are a consequence of arsey degree holders taking umbrage at poor conditions, rather than of the conditions themselves.
Thus, having established that it all comes down to a fit of pique, the problem is solved. No need to tackle the dissatisfactions that are leading Those Who Can to abandon this most indispensable of occupations, upon which so many others depend. No need to address what an educational researcher has termed “the proletarianisation of the teaching profession”. Just draft in staff who, with rectums free of their own heads and fewer prospects at their disposal, are unlikely to complain. Better still, hitch your cart to Lord Nash’s caravan of guff, and repeat after he: teachers do not need to be creative; they need to “embrace standardisation”. Or, as it is otherwise known, behave like the mindless factota he clearly thinks they are, delivering stuff created elsewhere.
So, back to the tutor. Whether problem or solution, you can be pretty sure that s/he’ll be Coming To A Cellar Near You.