A bit on the side never harmed anyone

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Last week a retired secondary teacher engaged me in an interesting debate about the demerits of private tutoring. "Gives an unfair advantage to the wealthy," he stated, a claim fairly equal in old chestnut terms to "It's immoral" or "Who's doing the homework?" But, like it or not, it's big business especially with exams round the corner. Paying for extra help with school subjects is commonplace, as last week's Scotland Plus showed. And why not?

Some teachers are disturbed when they hear that their charges are being tutored by another. It seems to tune into some latent anxiety about their own performance in the classroom. What's the problem? Driving lessons, music lessons, a yoga class, even a personal trainer to take care of fitness. All of that's OK but not apparently one hour per week extra maths or history or whatever.

The one to one tutorial beats everything. The pupil who has difficulty in a large class flourishes. A good tutor works wonders. A motionless monochrome picture is transformed into bright moving images. Nothing particularly miraculous or subversive about that.

My own recent experiences as a pupil validate the truth of this. Hearing explanations about operating complex programs on my computer when part of a large throng was one thing. Having the undivided attention of a tutor in a private tutorial was another. Guess when I learnt most?

What I most needed was a bit of confidence boosting. I am just like some of the kids who want private tuition. I wanted someone to tell me that I can do it. Sometimes pupils may have had a negative experience in the classroom. These experiences stick with them and they lose faith in their own abilities. It's nt difficult to help them: it's usually just a question of lifting the witch doctor's curse and proving that they can do the subject.

Then there are the borderline cases who hover around the passfail mark. They may never show a shard of brilliance but, if they are motivated and prepared to take advice, individual attention may see them through. The key thing is insight into exam technique.

I understand why teachers get knotted up about tutors doing the pupils' homework for them. I would be as doubting as the next Thomas if I thought some chancer was actually doing the set tasks for the rascals, but that's pretty rare in my experience. Looking back on my own years of tutoring one event sticks in my mind. A private pupil was publicly humiliated by her class teacher because she had a tutor. Worse than the accusation of cheating was the tone of voice - deep sarcasm. It transpired that the teacher's wrath had ignited when the pupil told her that she had already completed the class task - a past exam paper - with me.

Broaden your horizons, I felt like shouting from the mountain tops. I would be thrilled if a pupil said,"I've already done this", be it with a tutor, his granny or the family cat.

I would like to say that the whole of the teaching profession is fabulous but I just can't. I do believe that parents are doing the right thing if they engage a private tutor to plug the gaps and maximise opportunity for their offspring. But don't think I'm touting for business. No chance. I gave up tutoring a couple of years ago - pressure of work and all that, just couldn't do it justice. But I continue to be inundated with requests.

Intriguing, isn't it?

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