WEALTHY parents do their children no favours by forking out fees for their education, according to the head of one of the country's top tutorial colleges.
"Ironically, their parents' willingness to pay removes the student's need for motivation and work," Josephine Palmer, principal of Oxford Tutorial College and an expert in student pastoral care, told the annual conference of the Council for Independent Further Education, at Stratford-upon-Avon at the weekend.
Ms Palmer, with 27 years' experience in post-16 education, said a third of college students, particularly boys, were in need of learning support. Disturbing examples of poor little rich boys included one who told his teachers: "What's the point of me studying? I know I'll be taking over my father's business," she said.
When another boy skipped a lesson, a classmate told the tutor: "I know he's around. I've seen his Merc parked outside."
Boys, Ms Palmer said, were often late for classes or didn't bother turning up. They were "hopelessly disorganised". Among boarders, some stayed out all night, missed meals, kept "unsuitable company", always appeared short of money and avoided telephone calls from anxious parents.
Delegates, representing the country's 34 independent tutorial colleges, popularly known as "crammers", sat stunned as Ms Palmer continued her list of home truths. "We shouldn't be seen to spy on young people, but we do have the responsibility of caring for them," she said.
Fathers who insisted on sending their reluctant sons to their own prestigious alma mater came in for a verbal hammering. "Unless their sons turned out to be good at sport, life could be hell for them," she said. Boys often described the best independent schools as being "like prisons".
In her time in FE she had dealt with students who were involved in arson, incest and drugs. She had even "had one murderer" over the years.
Boys created most problems and some arrived at tutorial colleges as "refugees from prestigious independent schools". Many had been bullied - not by other pupils but by teachers so obsessed with the school's position in the league tables that they would not tolerate even the most minor transgression.
Pupils would be excluded for the slightst misdemeanour, simply to improve the school's position in the league.
Tutorial college tasks were far tougher than simply guiding students to examination success. They needed to re-motivate them and help them overcome "long-term problem of low self-esteem," she said.
Many overseas students, of whom there are some 2,000 among CIFE's 7,500-strong student body, overstretch themselves. "They can get very depressed. Some of them who come from cultures where it is difficult to admit they cannot cope, set themselves impossibly high targets."
Young people without parents in this country turn to their tutor for support. One boy said to Ms Palmer: "Can I come to you every day and show you what I've done?" She told the conference: "As a parent myself, I find it hard to believe that there are youngsters who have no one to turn to."
"Personal tutors need special training in listening skills and should be honest with students if a problem is too difficult for them to handle alone. They should admit that they'll have to pass it on to someone else. Always keep scrupulously careful records of everything that happens. Pastoral care should not just be tacked onto the end of a busy teaching day."
Ms Palmer has produced Cause for Concern forms to be completed by members of her staff as the need arises.
Other delegates gave examples of assistance that colleges could provide. Peter Corcut of Bellerbys College, Hove, which has 400 students aged 14 to 25, said it was helpful to bring in first-language counsellors once a week. "We have students from China, Japan, Thailand, Germany, and they can get very tired at the end of a day when nothing but English is spoken. Someone who speaks their language and to whom they can unpack their problems, helps to relieve homesickness and the like," he said.
Paul Redhead, vice-chairman of CIFE and principal of the Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies, whose 180 students come at 16 from both the state and private school sectors, said he made sure that personal tutors did not also teach the student. But he also wanted to make it clear that the college "isn't a refuge for the lame".
Ms Palmer agreed. "But I've had students who have had very bad experiences at very distinguished schools. And I have had more problems at the (relatively small) college I'm in now than in an FE college with 6,000 students."