Now, here's an interesting thing. Almost everyone consulted about this – heads, teachers, tutors, maths experts – turned out to have hired a maths tutor for their own teenage children. Which not only sheds some telling light on how widespread private tutoring has become, but also shows how important those in the know think it is to stay on top of this particular subject.
Maths, they say, is something you can't afford not to "get", and if your child's not getting it at school, then he or she must get it elsewhere.
Maths teachers are in chronically short supply, good ones are in even shorter supply, and a huge amount of school maths lessons are now being taught by non-specialists – 60 per cent at Key Stage 3 (14-year-olds), according to one recent survey. So, children running into problems at GCSE level might well be doing so because of poor teaching earlier, or because they have always found maths easy up to now, and skated through lessons, only to find that they don't have strategies in place to help them once the going gets tougher.
Barbara Ball, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, says that it is important to try and unpick the problem. "But it sounds as if the boy has lost confidence in his teacher, and once that happens, you can be in trouble. When I was a maths teacher, I always said to parents wanting to get a tutor, 'Try it and see'."
Any extra time given to maths is likely to be a good thing, says Margaret Brown, professor of maths education at King's College London, who believes there is little risk of a good tutor muddling up a child.
But what makes a good tutor? Barbara Allen, director of the Open University's Centre for Maths Education, says that it will be one who uses correct maths vocabulary, who has the syllabus of the relevant exam board, plus examples of past papers to hand, and who has a good local track-record. "It's like choosing a driving instructor. You're better off on personal recommendation."
However, if that isn't possible, Christine Slade, of the online Tutors' Directory, says that parents must quiz any prospective tutor about background and experience before going ahead. Maths revision sites, available on the web, can be a useful backstop, if no tutor is available. The BBC's GCSE Bitesize is a good place to start.
I ALSO attended a good comprehensive school, but during my biology A- level, I felt that I was not understanding as quickly as everybody else. When my mum suggested a tutor, I was against it. However, the tutor went over things that I had learnt previously, and understanding these made me feel great. We also looked at new topics and when I "got" these, I felt terrific. It gave me the confidence to put my hand up in class.
Third-year primary education student, University of the West of England
WHEN I was teaching maths, I always welcomed a suggestion from a parent that a struggling pupil should get coaching. A large part of success in maths is confidence, and talking to someone who is maths literate helps. Clearly, your son's teacher has had some bad experiences with incompetent tutors. It is not the job of a tutor to teach "different ways" – they should be responsive to your son's needs, and explain the background to a topic. At this stage, almost all new topics are building on previous work (which may be something he has missed through illness or, dare I say it, inattention). The important thing is to support and work with his teachers, not undermine them.
WELL DONE for causing a significant discussion in this house! My view (parent and teacher's husband: "Of course you should get a tutor for your son. He has already identified a problem that he can't solve, and you have identified a possible solution. I would be more inclined to ask why his teacher wouldn't encourage extra help in a subject he's obviously struggling with, and how many other pupils are struggling under this particular teacher." My wife's view (parent and teacher): "Why don't you put the time in with your child? The best way for anyone to capture a topic they are struggling with is to try and teach it to someone else. Put time and effort into your child, not money. Tutors tend to be retired teachers who are not up on current teaching methods, or people unwilling to teach in a classroom."
NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY
'I am a new head of sixth form at a comprehensive that serves a disadvantaged estate in the Midlands, and I am keen to raise my students' aspirations as high as possible. We have some very bright boys and girls who, with some help, I feel sure could aim for Oxbridge. But our school has never sent anyone there, and some colleagues say that it would be a misuse of time and resources to give extra support to just a few students, especially as it is a long shot that they would get in'
Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce by next Monday 8 April, at 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, by fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail email@example.com, with 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
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