Wizardry from Oz
After 10 years as a primary headteacher, Roger Harding now runs a very different kind of classroom. At his smart business address - the very grand Imperial Square, Cheltenham - exercise books and worksheets are laid out next to personal computers ready for his pupils. There are tins of sweets, bottles of juice and gifts for good attendance. The furniture is from Ikea and the decor is yellow and blue - the corporate colours of an Australian after-school tuition franchise.
Two and a half years ago there were 27 Kip McGrath education centres in the UK offering personal tuition in English and maths. Today, there are 131, most of them owned by or employing qualified teachers. Business is booming - the franchise aims to expand further to 400 centres over the next three years.
Roger Harding launched his Kip McGrath centre last October and has not looked back - he is better paid than he was as a headteacher, he can set his own hours, and has relatively little paperwork to worry about. He tutors 71 pupils a week with the help of two part-time teachers: his target is 200 students.
"It's the pleasure of knowing that every minute you put in will not only be personally rewarding, but also benefit the pupils in your charge," he says.
"It's a win-win situation.
"And the children come here and they have fun. At the end of the day, it's the old-fashioned 'three Rs' dressed up and delivered in a highly stimulating way."
Kip McGrath Education Centres began 30 years ago as crammers in Maitland, New South Wales, Australia, when Kip and Dugnija McGrath needed to earn extra money to pay their mortgage. The company began franchising in 1988 and also has centres in the United States, South Africa, Canada, and China, offering extra tuition for pupils aged six to sixteen.
As well as text books and activity sheets, they use computer software and games in what the company describes as "a motivating programme designed to help children overcome their difficulties in reading, spelling, English and mathematics".
They also help students who have moved schools, had an emotional upset, been ill, have a learning difficulty or have developed behavioural problems.
Alan Biggs, a former primary head from New South Wales who oversees the UK franchises, says the programmes offered are based on the Australian curriculum and tailored to the needs of pupils in Britain.
The centres are proving popular as a means of employment for retired teachers or heads who buy into the franchises, or teachers who are working part time to earn extra cash.
"This has tended to be a middle-aged person's business," says Mr Biggs.
"It's a business where a few grey hairs don't hurt. At the other end of the scale, our youngest franchisee is 28."
He insists those running the centres can make a good living. With support from part-time supply teachers, some centres can tutor up to 200 pupils a week charging around pound;20 per pupil. But there is a catch - you have to buy into Kip McGrath and pay the start-up costs to get the business going. Mr Harding paid pound;11,700 to buy into the franchise, plus the costs of renting and furnishing his premises, business rates and leasing computers.
Children who come through his door for an 80-minute tuition session range from primary pupils seeking help with reading and spelling, to GCSE maths students. The centre also helps pupils cram for places at Gloucestershire's selective grammar schools.
He says his centre's tuition is motivational. "I have a child here who will do more maths work in 80 minutes than he or she will do in five days at school. The work programme is individualised for each pupil and has been drawn up as a result of an assessment process. The education plan put into place for each child is tailored completely to their needs."
Mr Harding says the part-time teachers he employs enjoy the positive nature of the tutoring - they are encouraged to praise constantly and reward pupils for progress. Nor are the Kip McGrath centres subject to the scrutiny of inspections.
"There is that natural tendency of teachers to have a healthy cynicism," says Alan Biggs, "and I don't mind healthy cynicism. Because if anyone does their research on us, we stand up. We are very transparent as an organisation "We are not subject to the reviews schools are under. But we are subject to the review of the market place. Parents do not enter a contract saying they have to sign up their child for a number of lessons, most people pay week by week. If they are disenchanted with the level of service and the fact that their kids aren't learning or wasting their time, they can pull them out."