Coaching with confidence

A tutor can make all the difference to a child with difficulties. But parents must choose carefully, says Sandra Smith
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The Independent Online
Y our child's school report is generous, bland, reassuring. Yet her books are a scrawled mess and she is unenthusiastic about schoolwork. You have a gut feeling that things aren't right and suspect that she may have academic problems that are being ignored by the school.

Or your child is due to take Common Entrance, GCSEs or A-levels, and you both feel that a little extra help might make all the difference. Many parents turn to out-of-school tuition. But finding a tutor with experience and the correct qualifications involves more than taking down a phone number in a newsagent's window.

Parents can ask reference libraries, schools and local authorities for lists of tutors, and some teachers advertise in local newspapers or the Yellow Pages. But none of these will have their qualifications and backgrounds vetted. The Association of Tutors will provide names in your area of tutors whose qualifications and background have been checked.

Pat Lovering, who has set up a Saturday school franchise which now has 30 establishments, says: "Perhaps the best way to find a tutor is by word of mouth. But it is necessary to be very careful as there is no real guarantee of qualifications and experience."

Parents have two options - one-to-one tuition or group tuition at a Saturday school, which comes cheaper. Paul Scales, the manager of such a school in Sunderland, says: "Many children benefit from tuition in a small group of no more than six. It can create a healthy dynamic, a little bit of competition, which develops the children's confidence so that they can speak up and participate in class."

Those who come for tuition are often in the mid-ability band, and are withdrawn and unenthusiastic about their schoolwork. "Often they are not being stretched enough and are not getting sufficient attention because of large class sizes," says Mr Scales, a former primary school teacher.

Tuition fees range from pounds 8 per hour for two hours at Saturday school to between pounds 13 and pounds 25 per hour for individual tuition, depending on tutor experience and where you live. It can be as much as pounds 35 at university level. There is a growing demand for tutoring among first and second-year university students, according to the educational consultancy Gabbitas Truman and Thring, which has about 50 tutors covering all levels on its list.

Both parent and child approaching tuition for the first time will be slightly anxious, and there may be some shame about the stigma of needing extra coaching. "But every child can develop a problem at some stage at school, and a little timely help makes the world of difference to a child's outlook," Mrs Lovering says. The tutor should first discuss all aspects of the tuition with the parent, and should quickly establish a rapport with the child. Book only one lesson to start with to ensure there isn't an immediate personality clash.

"If the child seems unhappy, stop immediately," Mrs Lovering advises. "Very few children are simply lazy or uninterested, particularly in a one-to-one situation."

Most tutors work in their own homes, although this trend is changing, and sessions can be as short as 30 minutes, particularly with young children. Tutor and parent should discuss who will provide books and materials. The tutor should be able to give a clear idea after one or two lessons what will be achieved. It is a good idea to ask to contact previous clients, and to try to establish exactly how much success a tutor has had in getting children through particular exams, such as the Common Entrance.

Most children attend Saturday schools for about two terms, or 20 weeks, but some can remain for as long as three years. Max Dolby, who runs Basic Skills Tuition in Peterborough, seldom sees a child for less than a year. "Often the difficulty is getting the parent to want to stop. They see such a change in the child that it gives them a feeling of confidence."

The Association of Tutors can be contacted on 01604-24171. A helpline operates weekdays between 2pm and 4pm. The association is holding its annual conference on Saturday 28 October at Toddington, Bedfordshire. More details are available from the above number.

`It has been well worth the money'

William Faux is nine years old and has been under tuition for about two years. His mother, Suzie, says: "I wasn't happy with things at school. He wasn't progressing, wasn't reading or writing. They kept saying it wasn't a problem." A tutor (Max Dolby) was recommended and, while progress was slow, William's parents feel happy with the results. "Mr Dolby had to go back to basics with him, but it's all falling into place now and we've decided to carry on till Christmas. He's a shy little chap, but has become much more confident. It has been well worth the money."

`We're not pushy. We just wanted him to be happy'

Douglas Lambert began tuition when he was about six and a half. He was struggling to read, had problems with writing, and a short concentration span. His mother, Julie, says: "The school's attitude was `He's settling down'. But he lacked confidence." A tutor was recommended by another parent and Douglas received tuition for half an hour a week for more than a year. "He became very confident with his reading and much more comfortable with tackling problem-solving," Mrs Douglas says. "He needed to know that he could achieve things. We're not pushy. We just wanted him to be happy."