Working as a private tutor nowadays is a bit like being a confiseur for Marie Antoinette: no matter how much you spin the sugar into a confection about feeding society, you’re really just making life sweeter for the rich. And I should know, having taught a predominantly wealthy elite for over a decade.
Five years into the most thoroughgoing economic malaise since the Great Depression, and among more cuts than a straight-to-DVD movie, it should come as scant wonder that one of the few boom industries is that of private education. Among the strata of the recession-proof uber rich, the private tutor can often appear as simply the next human accessory, summoned before the court to perform.
Yet in a society plagued by the disease of aspiration, it’s no longer just about the very rich. Salaried and striving parents are queuing up to fuel the boom in a market valued in excess of £6bn a year, hyperventilating that their kids are being left behind as an already unequal form of education plunges into something that would make the feudal system look like the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Amid terror tales of two year olds receiving elocution tutorials, and salacious reports of super tutors creaming £1000 per hour, the method for ensuring your child makes it with the likes of David Cameron, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bear Gryllis appears simple: start ‘em young and pawn your granny to do so.
I began tutoring with no formal teaching qualification, only a respectable degree from one of the top universities of the world and a knack for working with children without leaving either one of us in shreds. Soon I was called to the sort of West London streets I thought had been dismantled once Mary Poppins had finished filming. The class of degree was less important than the whispered name of the university. I repeatedly watched parents hypnotized by the dubious dream of some sort of intellectual osmosis, passing accomplishment like a cold, from tutor to pupil.
Among the braying stables of the landed gentry, a class not similar to TB being at once both anachronistic to the modern world yet ever more resistant to removal, what made the process endurable was being called on every so often by a normal family, for whom tutoring was an expensive and rare gift that succeeded in helping an already able child fulfill their potential. Sometimes I worked for the council, or on a donation-only basis, or for free. Helping those who were living proof that money does not happiness make, the ones struggling to cope with their parents’ divorce, excluded and facing depression, or those who couldn’t speak without spluttering into a vast, gutteral chasm, made tutoring feel, if not as moral as curing cancer, then at least something marginally less dirty than selling arms to Bahrain.
Of course one to one tuition is an amazing process. The problem is that under the current system, already polarized between the wafer thin few and the frantic, competing many, where the standard of exams in the private sector is at least two years more advanced than the equivalent level in the state, children already excessively advantaged are being further preferred. In many cases, the next step for such kids is to have the tutor turn up and sit the paper for them.
Invariably it’s the parents who could do with an education. I’m thinking of the CEO of a major bank who had all his family’s possessions DNA swabbed, such was his fear of many-fingered gypsies running off with a pot. Or the media mogul who, in addition to his five-storey Mayfair house and Oxfordshire mansion, kept a chateau in the Loire valley, closed up throughout the year, save for the two weeks in the summer when it was needed. Recently I was offered any financial incentive I cared to mention to continue working for the sons of a convicted, billionaire murderer. It was at this point I realised the time had come to take up something marginally less compromising. Like fracking.
The malaise with private tutoring is not the absence of regulation. The agencies I’ve worked for have been tightly run with all tutors CRB checked, and for every passing public school graduate who fancies earning some cash between gap years, there are scores of tutors from local comps; intelligent, kind, and, though shockingly inferior in terms of social connections, at least warm-blooded enough to understand how to be interested in someone’s emotional well-being for longer than the duration of a gin and tonic.
No, the real problem is why we continue to panic buy into a system so fatally unequal, so personally exhausting, so environmentally destructive and wonder why there remains an issue with the lessons our kids are learning.