What keeps me awake at night - From marble to middle classes

Anonymous views from education's front line

Tes Editorial

This week: the writer is a tutor in London

Tutoring is all about extremes. I once walked to a gated marble house in the suburbs to sit for two hours coaxing an essay out of a 13-year-old, a student at one of the country's top public schools. His crime - for it is always an educational crime that calls the tutor in - was having achieved a B in his Year 9 summer exam. I'd always thought paying for a tutor in addition to public school was something of a tautology, but such innocence is long gone now. The indignity of missing out on Oxbridge for want of an extra hundred pounds a week!

On the other side of the city, I work for a woman whose disabled child can't read. She struggles to scrape the fee together each week, but there's no question of losing my services - reading (much like my fee) is non-negotiable. When my agency put the cost of lessons up (aiming at the bemarbled market) she panicked and fussed, while my other clients handed over the extra #163;10 note with barely a contemptuous sniff.

Then there's the middle market. These include the children for whom I am a surrogate parent for the hour. Those whose confidence needs increasing so they can breeze through the exams thrust upon them at primary school, or the child who barely speaks because she's the youngest in a family of talkers. They are inevitably charming pupils glad of the attention - a stark contrast to my legions of disaffected GCSE students, bored and terrified in equal measure.

It's not my place to question the need for a tutor, or indeed to re-diagnose the educational condition the parent has identified. If it's self-confidence rather than boredom or laziness, it's self-confidence I'll work on (and I'll work on the laziness surreptitiously). But it's easy to understand the laziness when looking at the material I'm supposed to help them with. Nearly a generation on, they're doing the same school texts I did.

Many of these students are treading a vicious circle in their everyday teaching - glancing over the work I am given by GCSE students, it's plain that their everyday teachers barely dare correct grammar for fear of putting them off. If a pupil even hands in an essay, it's an achievement. I'm in a glass house myself, though: faced with work laced with nonsensical sentences and structural insecurity, it's a daunting task choosing which to tackle first.

So I often lie awake at night wondering how best to serve these vastly different pupils. I lack the intensive advantages of the exam teacher, and the psychological sophistication of the pastoral support. I'm there as a sticking plaster over educational inadequacy or else as an insurance policy for the exam. Yet when I realise my pupils cannot understand a poem, I wonder what exactly it is I'm insuring.

To tell us what terrifies you or to share the unscripted events that have happened in your classroom, email michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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