Education Quandary

'My son's school says that he needs a physics tutor. Shouldn't they be teaching him properly?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Yes, of course, but welcome to the real world. Your son's school, like so many others, has had great difficulty attracting any physics teachers at all into its science department, let alone good ones. It is, by all accounts, doing what it can to improve the teaching of the rather duff ones that it has got, but it's an uphill struggle. Meanwhile, A-levels loom, your son needs a decent grade, and this school head is only being realistic in suggesting that a tutor might help him to achieve one.

If you can afford it, do pay for extra tuition. If you can't, kick up a fuss at the school and demand that he and any other struggling pupils be given catch-up sessions, or extra lessons with a different teacher.

Meanwhile, encourage him to find all the help he can via textbooks and internet revision sites (there are masses to choose from), and make sure that he keeps at it. If he is already falling behind, he can't afford to let the gap widen.

The shortage of physics teachers in British schools is dire. Since 1990, physics teachers have dropped from being a third of all science teachers to only 13 per cent, and many of those are now nearing retirement. Schools increasingly get by with non-specialist staff and general science courses, but the number of pupils taking physics A- level has plummeted by almost 40 per cent in 15 years, according to research at the University of Buckingham, and the subject's future looks so bleak that some predict that it could disappear from schools altogether.

Readers' advice

Perhaps the head is being pragmatic. He may know there are problems in the class that are affecting teaching and learning. He may not be able to sort these out in time for your son to do his best. Send your son to a tutor and put your concerns in writing to the school.
Karen McMullan, Ballyclare

My son went to a physics tutor, and it was his salvation. I think he would have failed his A-level without this tuition. The tutor could not believe what an out-of-date textbook his school was using. It took weeks of hard work to get him back up to scratch, and it was clear during that time that he had failed to grasp even those things that he thought he had understood. But the one-to-one sessions finally brought him a B grade and, just as importantly, helped him to enjoy physics again and see the point.
Pat Henderson, York

Does this reader have any idea how many children are tutored, even when they go to private schools? I tutor 13 children a week in French, from all kinds of schools, private and local, and many of them are also seeing other tutors. Parents these days are competitive and seem to take it for granted that they will have to pay to get results.

Maybe the reason that your head suggested this is that he or she is well aware of this marketplace, and how many pupils in the school are already getting extra help.
Jennifer Balmein, London N8

Next week's quandary

My wife is a dedicated secondary-school department head who devotes herself to her pupils. As part of her Christmas present, I am planning to make a donation in her name to an educational charity that reflects this passion and devotion. My gut feeling is that I would like a smaller charity. Do you have any suggestions?

Send your letters to Hilary Wilce by Monday, at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mails: Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser