Are you wasting your money on private tuition?

So, this is a bit of a strange way to start a post for someone who’s plugging an online tuition business, but hear me out.

I work at a very good school. Students are generally more motivated than average, smaller class sizes, experienced teaching staff with low turnover. Despite this, students often find science really difficult. Why, then, when I hear one of my students (especially the younger ones) proudly claim “I’ve got a tutor now, miss” does my heart sink a little?

Throwing money at the problem

Every teacher knows the scene. Mikey is falling behind in science and needs help. He needs more support outside of lessons. Are you running revision sessions after school? Can you recommend a private tutor? 

A week later, and Mikey still hasn’t handed in those practice questions you gave him because he ‘hasn’t had time’. In fact, he’s not even started the work he’s supposed to be doing in the lesson twenty minutes in. But it doesn’t matter, because tonight he’s got a whole hour of science tuition lined up.

staff required sign
Don’t just think about who you hire – why are you hiring them?
“I need to get fit”

Imagine one day you decided to get fit and healthy. You could just look up some articles and devise a new fitness regime and diet from the internet, but it’s overwhelming and time-consuming, and you decide to hire a personal trainer. Hiring a tutor is a little like hiring a personal trainer, and in my time as a private tutor I have come across three main categories of ‘trainee’:

“Just-need-help” Jenny

Jenny has no idea what she actually finds difficult in her subject. She wants to improve, but she might have unrealistic targets – if you ask her what outcome she is after, she will probably answer with something vague and immeasurable such as ‘as good as I can get’. This is like turning up to the personal training session and simply wanting to get healthier – it’s going to be very challenging to set realistic and timely goals. 

Of course, a good personal trainer will at least be able to make an assessment of fitness and ask appropriate questions to determine what the real desired outcomes are. But this is time-consuming, and means that less of your session is actually spent on, you know, the training bit. Just-need-help Jenny is diving into tuition because she and/or her parents are panicking about underachieving, without any awareness of why she’s underachieving.

“Teach-me-again” Tom

Tom does have some ideas about areas to work on. He remembers that topic on electrolysis last year where he didn’t have a clue what was going on and he’s relying on you to fix that for him. To be fair on Tom, it may be that he actually missed some topics altogether – perhaps he was off sick for a long period, or moved to a different school. (These are perfectly good reasons for hiring a private tutor.)

It’s a little harder to compare this situation to the personal training analogy. However, imagine you turn up to see your personal trainer, and you have an idea on what you want to improve on. You saw a different personal trainer a few months ago and they gave you some exercises, which you did during the session, but you haven’t practised them since. You’ve now forgotten the original exercises and so you’re paying the new trainer to teach you them again. 

“I-love-lists” Lucy

Lucy is going to get the most out of the tuition session. She knows what level she’s working at and where she wants to be. She may have gone through old tests or example questions to find specific areas she doesn’t understand and she will have gone over a topic on her own before asking for help with it. 

laptop covered in post it notes
Lucy is often also a huge fan of post it notes

Back in the training analogy, imagine you have been running for a while and you’ve reached a particular level. You want to improve your times, so you go online and look up a few hints for technique. You try them out and make some improvements on your own, but now you’ve reached a plateau. You go to a personal trainer, tell them your current lap time and that you want to improve by ten seconds in two months. 

The trainer can now really focus on the questions they ask. What surface are you running on? How often do you run? Other than a little bit of necessary admin and health and safety, virtually the whole session can be spent on productive consultation and instruction.

Big changes won’t happen from an hour a week

It may seem obvious which pupil is getting the most value for money from their instructor’s time. And yet, there is a fundamental factor that has not been discussed here, which could mean that even the Lucies with the longest lists (and I have come across many in my time) could be making very little extra progress.

You shouldn’t go to a personal trainer without knowing what you want to work on. But, more importantly, you shouldn’t go to a personal trainer for an hour a week, do nothing else and expect results.

And yet, this is what probably 80% of pupils do after a private tuition session. On more than one occasion I have turned up to a pupil’s house to find all their revision guides and the notes we made last lesson, sitting in the exact same spot they were last time I left. This is the most extreme case, but it’s a lot more common than you might think.

Surely it’s better than doing nothing?

Absolutely – almost any effort to improve understanding is going to be better than giving up. But is it value for money? Hardly. It’s like going to the gym once a week, working out like a champion and spending the rest of the week binging on fast food and box sets. Observable progress is likely to be microscopic.

“I feel great after that training session… Wanna get pizza?”
What should I do?

I love the fact that in my job I can have a huge impact on children’s confidence and attainment. But as a science tutor who also still teaches in a school, my time is limited and I wish I could help more students make the most of what they are paying for. If you want to start private tuition, have a look at the second part of this week’s blog entry – the questions you should be asking yourself (or your child) before you start.

make things happen notice board
Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

Related Post