As children head into the holidays having missed four months of school, rich parents are rushing for private tutors to help them catch up
The Telegraph 25/07/2020, Luke Mintz
The children begin their afternoon by jogging vigorously on the spot, in the middle of their living room, before turning their attention to 20 star jumps and 20 “mountain climber” exercises. “Bring those knees in – come on guys,” their teacher implores them through their laptop screens. The fitness routine is designed to get the children in the right frame of mind for an intense afternoon of “creative, physical and academic studies” taught online, including an art lesson from award-winning wildlife painter Stephen Rew, and English with former Harrow teacher Lisa Powell (who then became a so-called “super-tutor” for the children of international business moguls). The afternoon finishes with a yoga class, live-streamed from the beach home of teacher Sonia Doubell in Florida.
The homeschooling programme is taught remotely by Class Action, an elite tuition firm that has gone digital during the pandemic, and sets each parent back £125 for a half day – just one example of the lengths to which wealthy parents are turning in their attempt to get their children up to speed following four months of school closures. Research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in May suggests that the parents of one in five children from the richest fifth of families sought out a private tutor during lockdown (versus just nine percent of poorer children). Hannah Titley, founder of the Golden Circle firm, which charges £35,000 for a year’s worth of round-the-clock homeschooling, says she had 30 new students join them in the summer term (usually it is only a “handful”); while Adam Caller, founder of Tutors International, says a number of clients have requested tutors go into isolation with their children. One family from Dubai offered to pay £24,000-a-month to a tutor who would live on their superyacht in the Mediterranean, he said.
Demand has now gone into overdrive following the Prime Minister’s call this month for a “massive summer catch-up operation”, with tutoring firms reporting a boom in requests over late July and August, a period usually seen as a time for relaxation.
“I’m not surprised a lot of [parents] want to do it through the summer holidays,” says Kate Hilpern, an editor at the Good Schools Guide who is in charge of reviewing tutoring agencies. “It’s hard enough for some youngsters to keep up with the curriculum, and with some schools providing few or even no online lessons, online tutoring has, for some children, been their only traditional teaching.” She dislikes the “soul-destroying” cycle of “death by worksheets, which has been the order of the day for so many schools”, and says many children “haven’t been having feedback from teachers during lockdown, so they’re not sure how they’re getting on. Again, tutors have helped there.”
The demand for summer catch-up tutors is driven by a frustration among the more sharp-elbowed parents that teachers – including those at expensive private schools and high-performing state schools – have not pulled their weight over lockdown. TeacherTapp, a polling firm, found that on any given day of the summer term, only six percent of state secondary teachers and three percent of state primary teachers hosted a live online lesson that allowed pupils to speak; meanwhile the Sutton Trust, an education charity, says that 50 percent of secondary pupils and 64 percent of primary pupils worked three hours a day or less during the summer term.
And the private sector is by no means immune. “There hasn’t been quite such a split between the state sector and the private sector as I would have thought,” says Hilpern. “Some state schools have been amazing and some private schools have been pretty rubbish. Some schools – including ones at the top of league tables – are so geared towards coaching for exams they’ve actually found it quite difficult to think outside the box. We’ve heard of some schools where, even though they’ve had online lessons, the teachers don’t get how to do it so they’re just talking at the children as if they’re standing in a classroom… It’s just mind-numbing.”
Schools and teaching unions say that parents do not realise how difficult it is to set up remote learning. Video chat services might not be secure, they remonstrate, and video lessons might allow pupils to peer into each other’s bedrooms, raising safeguarding concerns. Some headteachers think it would have been unfair to press ahead with the curriculum because some children find it difficult to absorb new concepts while learning from home; instead, they think it is better to reinforce what has already been covered. They also say that schools were offered little help from the government to arrange remote learning (in France, in contrast, teachers and pupils were given access to a single online portal).
But Myca Lee, a software entrepreneur from west London and founder of the Class Action club, says many of the parents she works with have little patience for these excuses – especially if they are spending thousands each month on school fees. Whilst her own son, Constatijn, enjoyed an “incredible” summer term thanks to his boarding school in Ascot, Berkshire, other privately-educated children have found their terms marred by technological difficulties. “They’re very disappointed and a number have spoken to the headteacher to complain, saying, ‘Listen, this isn’t on, we can’t go through months of this, you need to up your game’.”
Lee’s Class Action club has arranged an intensive revision programme in August geared towards the 8+ and 11+ entrance exams. She believes the future of education lies in online video lessons, because they can be taught by a teacher anywhere in the world, and, inspired by the perils of lockdown, she is now launching a “Netflix for teaching” platform in September, for which parents will be able to pay a monthly £25 to £50 subscription for a catalogue of pre-recorded tutorials.
But critics fear that any increase in the uptake of private tuition will exacerbate divides between the haves and the have-nots. Disadvantaged children have already been hit hardest by lockdown; Rebecca Montacute, policy manager at the Sutton Trust, says the poorest are seeing the “double whammy” of their learning suffering during term-time at home, where they are less likely to have their own internet-connected device and space for study, and now classmates with private tutors soaring ahead over the summer. “It’s layered on top of all of this existing inequality during this time,” she explains.
Some are also concerned that children might get burnt out if they are forced to spend July and August brushing up on trigonometry and grammar. Russell Hobby, chief executive of the Teach First charity, has previously warned parents “not to overdo” summer teaching, and Hilpern agrees that any summer tuition must also be interspersed with plenty of time for relaxation. “Wellbeing has got to be the priority for students, especially in the current climate,” she says. “Unless they’re specifically asking for a tutor, or there’s a specific gap that you want to fill, then just let your child get on with their summer. Now that things are easing up, we’re finally able to let youngsters socialise, swim in outdoor pools, have picnics, play sport. Let them have a break.”