A palace fit for a governess

12th July 1996 at 01:00
More teachers are attracted to the freelance life than ever before, while demand for private tutors is growing. Some join families in exotic locations, while others try to make a living from home. Catherine Ormell reports.

Small, Islamic, Far Eastern Oil State (5770 sq km). A tutor is required to teach a princess in eight O-level subjects. Generous salary. Applications sought from mature, experienced candidates.

How many teachers scanning job adverts would hesitate over this one? Sipping coffee in the staffroom, geography teacher Sarah Marsh was tantalised. She was ready to trade in her suburban school life for comfort, adventure and a one-to-one ratio teaching a child who would want to learn. So she scribbled down the address for replies - a blue-chip firm of London solicitors - and sent her application off.

Three years on she has just returned from the land of glittering minarets, mountains and rain forest (she's too discreet to say where) and waits for the next opportunity to come her way.

Sarah did a PGCE at Cambridge, taught briefly in a secondary school and then in a Kent boarding school. Since then, she's chosen the life of a modern governess played out in the Middle East, Mexico, Monaco and America instead of a career as an ordinary schoolteacher.

"I like teaching, communicating with children, conveying information, training them to think," she says, "It's enormously satisfying."

But teaching in a mainstream state school terrifies her. She finds disruptive children hard to handle and wants to teach those who are motivated to learn. "There's a huge workload and endless committees. It seems overwhelming, both physically and mentally . . ."

Miss Marsh, who prefers the title tutor to governess, claims she comes from an ordinary-ish background. Still, her voice is plummy enough not to ruffle any whiskers at a consulate drinks party, she makes intelligent conversation, and generates the kind of instant trust that made one parent hire her on the strength of a five-minute phone call.

The role this lively, dark-eyed woman finds herself in, neither servant nor quite a member of the family, can be a socially precarious one. "If you live-in you have to be sensitive enough to know when to linger in the drawing room and when to disappear . . . to be friendly but not to get subsumed in someone else's life," she says, In general her super-rich employers have been easy-going, likeable, grateful sorts. Actually, she's only had one bad experience, stranded at a remote castle with a dim Scottish lord, who expected her to nanny his child for 18 hours a day.

Most of her employers have a specific educational goal in mind and her day runs typically from 9.30 in the morning to 3.30pm, with odd days set aside for excursions. "The job isn't just about the academic side," she explains. "I'd call it all-round child cultivation, building up their general knowledge, confidence, good manners, developing sports and conversation skills. Perhaps they can't write fluently or have no sense of chronological time or world geography. It's very rewarding because you can go exploring in all sorts of directions or go deep into a subject."

According to Gabbitas Educational Consultants, people come to them to hire a live-in governess or tutor for many different reasons. They may be posted to a remote area where there is no international school, or their child may have been seriously ill or experienced multiple expulsions.

Sarah Paul, recruitment and consultancy manager says: "More people are internationally mobile nowadays and they put the family first, they are not so keen to pack their children off to boarding school."

She says there are more tutors around now than there were a few years ago. In the past, such an occupation might have seemed a cop-out for those unable to face the real thing. In the Nineties, however, as growing numbers of experienced, conscientious teachers are routinely spat out by the system, there are more educated professionals who accept that life can be good as a freelance-something. In such uncomfortable times, the lifestyle of a private tutor is not to be so easily sniffed at.

Gabbitas recommend to clients a salary of Pounds 2,000 a month on top of accommodation, any travelling expenses, an annual flight home and six weeks' holiday. The salary is essentially tax-free pocket money - but it has to be good to compensate for the social isolation. Perks range from sojourns in smart hotels, to as much tropical fruit as you can eat. One of Sarah Marsh's colleagues was given a diamond-studded Rolex watch as a birthday present by her employer - a kind of alternative pension plan.

But if the glamorous lifestyle sounds tempting, the qualities required for the position are daunting: "The tutors we deal with are extremely academic, " says Paul, "but they also need to be, sensitive, adaptable, socially confident - able to hold their own on a boat for six weeks, for instance, unflappable, personally and professionally resourceful and discreet (it's common to sign an agreement not to disclose any details about the job)".

And, she adds with relish, "Everyone's got to like them, parents as well as kids, as well as friends and household staff."

Travelling, living with a family and working abroad is not everyone's cup of tea. For the modern tutorgoverness who'd rather stay at home there is an alternative. Recruit lots of different pupils to come to you.

Valerie Pascual, 33, taught integrated science and biology A-level in a comprehensive in Cornwall for a couple of years after she qualified. But just three years into teaching she felt disillusioned. "My quality of life had gone," she says. "The school and teaching took over and pushed everything else out."

Valerie, who likes the outdoor life and describes herself as "a bit of a loner, a bit of a perfectionist", moved back to her parents' home in Woking two years ago without a clear idea of what to do, except to have a break and look for a new challenge. She registered with an agency, took on a few pupils as a private tutor (she calls herself a freelance teacher because she teaches adults too) and found the demand exceeded her expectations.

Tutoring in three sciences plus maths, she now teaches five afternoons and evenings a week from 3pm through to 9.30pm earning Pounds 15 an hour and turning new customers away.

Sometimes her pupils come to her, sometimes she goes to them if they live nearby. She teaches in a spare sitting room, sitting by the window with her pupils at an old architect's drawing board. The youngest children are aged 12 to 13. "Generally they start at 15 with GCSE exams approaching, or after mocks when they panic", she says.

She gets a variety from both private and state schools, an equal number of boys and girls. The extra time-off in the mornings she spends with her horse Fiver or preparing lessons and organising her workload.

"My friends and family have said to me why don't you get a proper job, which is irritating because it is a proper job as far as I am concerned," she says. "It's not something that's regarded with respect, or given any status but really you have to put as much time into preparing a lesson for one child as you do for 30."

"Certainly, the freedom suits me and it takes away the hassle of the institution of school but one does miss the classroom atmosphere and also the colleagues. The biggest disadvantage is that you're very much on your own. "

On balance, however, she enjoys it more. "Last summer's exam results were very pleasing, a just-over 90 per cent pass rate," she says with some satisfaction.

Valerie is currently considering the financial viability of the job, the demand makes her think she could put her rates up (Pounds 25 an hour is not unheard of in London) or she may look for another part-time job that would supplement the tutoring.

One option she's reluctant to consider is returning to a mainstream teaching job. "Too much stress and paperwork," she says firmly. "This is a better way of life."

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