On Tutoring: A Head Teacher's view

ben thomas

"I believe that there is such a thing as good tutoring – and far too much bad tutoring. Where there is a specific need, identified by the school, then one-to-one tutoring can and does make a positive difference. A child with a specific learning difficulty, for example, or one for whom English is not the mother tongue will benefit from such intervention for a finite period of time to help them ‘catch up’ with the curriculum. 

The kind of tutoring I rail against – bad tutoring – is that instigated by FOMO: the Fear Of Missing Out. Parents who hear that “everyone else is doing it” can quickly become anxious that they will disadvantage their child if they do not join in. Suddenly, the child is subjected to late hours of additional work after school and at weekends, often on top of homework already set by the school, with no specific aim other than to ‘get ahead’.

This kind of bad tutoring leads to an erosion of childhood. Children should be using this precious time, which they will never have again, to expand their imagination: to play, to explore, to create, relax, read and think. Even, sometimes, to learn to be bored. Bad tutoring can also send a dangerous message to a child that he or she is not ‘good enough’, along with associated stress, anxiety and, in extreme cases, a breakdown in a child’s confidence, self-esteem and mental health.

And to what end? Employers tell me that many A* students from top universities are not recruited, because, although their academic record is impeccable, they do not have the human and social skills which are necessary to succeed in the workplace. In my view, such skills come from a self-confidence that is bred in childhood and is born out of being affirmed, loved and valued, most particularly in the early years of life.

I fully understand that it is hard for parents to hold the line. With significant pressure for senior school and university places, I know why putting in place bad tutoring can feel like good parenting. But it is not. 

Good education is about nurturing human flourishing in its broadest sense. Bad tutoring reduces this noble ideal to a narrow, prosaic, uninspiring pursuit of grades.

Parents need to ask themselves – in consultation with their child’s school – if there is a genuine reason, specific to their child, why extra tuition might be required. If there is not, then they must make a firm decision to love and accept their child for who they are and, if necessary, make a different plan. Good parenting means making a plan to fit the child, with all their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, not forcing a child to become a high-functioning robot in pursuit of a narrow and often misguided goal.

My final advice to parents? Trust your instincts. Hold your nerve. Love your child for who they are."

Ben Thomas, Headmaster, Thomas' Battersea 

The Tutors' Answer

Two tutors answer Ben Thomas' arguments

A Secondary Head's Perspective

Lucy Elphinstone, Head of Francis Holland Sloane Square echoes Thomas' views