Ignore the breathless broadsheet hype heralding the meteoric rise of the ‘supertutor’ – this is nothing but a cabal of trustafarian amateurs farmed out by agencies named after an Oxford college to families of the newly-minted rich, whose status anxiety can be leveraged to guarantee exorbitant fees. None of the parties involved in this sham have any pedagogical qualifications, and the existence of the entire value chain is an insult to the many thousands of teachers working tirelessly on behalf of their pupils. The industry is a con, and as a classroom teacher turned supertutor – I should know.
Private tutoring in the UK is not a new phenomenon, nor an especially culturally dominant one by the egregious standards of places like Hong Kong or South Korea . Only a quarter of London children of school age receive some kind of extra tuition, and the figure is even lower outside the capital. But British tutors operate in an international marketplace: just as the influx of oligarchs into the capital has reinvigorated the job market for butlers, landscape gardeners and Filipina maids, so too has it been a boon for an army of struggling actors and frustrating entrepreneurs who, thanks to the air of prestige that an expensive education brings, can now rebrand themselves as ‘supertutors’ and charge ten times as much per hour as the Filipina maid, despite being vastly less capable.
A London-based ‘elite’ tutoring agency recently advertised for a residential tutoring post, to be split between London, Moscow, Chamonix and St Tropez. The rate? £135,000 per annum, with free accommodation thrown in. Qualifications required? ‘The candidate should have attended a leading public school’.
There’s just one problem with this system: nobody knows what they’re doing. Tutors are signed up to premium agencies on the basis of having attended a specific school, without any need to demonstrate any pedagogical ability. I was told by one tutoring company that they couldn’t put me forward at a premium rate as I hadn’t attended a specific boarding school, ignoring the fact that I had taught at that very school for several years.
The job ended up going to 23-year-old with the right social credentials and almost no teaching experience. How do I know this? Because it was a friend of mine, who promptly rang me up for guidance. But don’t shed a tear for me just yet – I still regularly get pimped out at up to £200 an hour, even though many of my pupils are just in need of a bit of drilling in remedial maths and I haven’t done BODMAS since my GCSEs.
This system could perhaps work if the tutors were closely overseen and guided by the tutoring agencies, but in my experience they never are. As a teacher at a school, I was provided with a plethora of teaching materials, syllabuses and lesson plans and given constant guidance and training by experienced educators, child psychologists and academic experts. Lessons were observed by my managers and peers, and constant feedback and monitoring helped to make up for any pedagogical shortcomings I may have had in my early days on the job. The contrast with ‘premium’ tutoring agencies couldn’t be starker: when you are assigned a job, you are given a bare minimum of information about the client, and told to ring them up yourself to fill in the gaps. After this, you’re on your own: the agency provides no lesson plans or curriculum guidance whatsoever.
This is manageable for someone like me, with years of professional teaching under his belt, but pity the parent paying £100 an hour for a 22-year-old to turn up at their house clutching a few worksheets printed off the internet. In return for doing pretty much the square root of fuck all, agencies will typically charge hefty referral fees and also pocket commissions of up to 40% for every hour of contact time.
In some respects, it’s probably a good thing that the agencies take a hands-off approach with their tutors, as they don’t have a clue what they’re doing either. The people who man these outfits usually have little more expertise in teaching than the helpless amateurs they farm out: BE Education (which stands for ‘British Education Education’), a premium educational consultancy based in Shanghai and focusing on public school admissions, was set up by Old Etonian William Vanbergen, who had originally gone to the city to try to sell Aston Martins to newly minted Chinese. But after a friend asked if he could try to get a relative’s son into a British school, Vanbergen ‘spent a day prepping the boy on how to answer typical interview questions and the importance of sitting with a straight back and expressing an interest in rugby. He got a place and the mother insisted on giving me £2,000’. Vanbergen never sold any luxury cars in China, but his company now regularly recruits other public schoolboys and girls on their gap years to tell the scions of politburo princelings to sit up straight and express an interest in rugby – at a price, of course.
It is not just the Chinese who are susceptible to this snake oil: recent years have seen a proliferation of consultancies and tutoring companies, often set up by recent public school alumni: names like Carfax, Pembroke and Oppidan subtly suggest affiliation with elite institutions, and companies like this would like to claim their levels of expertise, but dig a little deeper and this expertise can be hard to ascertain. Carfax Tutors’ expert team is headed by James Hacking, whose sole pedagogical qualifications appear to be several years spent tutoring for (yes, you’ve guessed it) Carfax Education. Bright Young Things founder Woody Webster founded the company fresh out of university. His teaching chops, according to his website bio extend to ‘a strong interest in education and an enthusiastic approach to teaching and learning’.
Ultimately, if people with more money than sense are willing to pay over the odds to help a young graduate pay the rent until his gin start-up picks up steam, then who am I to stop them? In a free market with plenty of ostensibly identical agencies to choose from, the often asburd prices they charge are surely no more than the market is willing to bear. And in a free market, customers can vote with their feet: indeed, many agencies have shuttered in recent years, and others have downsized in the face of intense competition. As they have no demonstrable value-add, so they are inherently vulnerable to being cut out by clients who can easily poach tutors and pay them directly to save money. And nor is the elite end of industry resistant to the disruption of technology: website interfaces such as Tutorful, with hundreds of tutors on their books, have lessened the cachet of boutique agencies with their closely-guarded stables of thoroughbred tutors (in fact, most just circulate emails to large mailing lists of tutors, most of whom work for multiple agencies simultaneously).
In the end though, it may be the far more prosaic issue of tax that brings the industry to heel. As with the less remunerated end of the gig economy, tutoring agencies are under increasing government scrutiny, and last year many circulated panicked emails asking tutors to lobby the government to avoid obliging them to pay tax and NIC on tutors’ wages as well as providing them with other benefits befitting their effective status as employees. Although private tutors are yet to down tools and join their Uber driver brethren in protest, the response to these petitions was nevertheless muted.
The attractiveness of the British public school system to provide minigarchs with a veneer of establishment respectability means that there will probably always be a gap in the market for supertutors on six figure salaries, but if Brexit and Unexplained Wealth Orders leads London to lose its lustre, there is yet hope that this hobbyist charade may yet collapse under the weight of its entitled hubris.
Illustration by Kate Dunn