Governesses: are they the answer to parents' prayers?

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The Independent Online
It is popular in the States, and is gaining momentum here.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer reports on the return of the governess/ tutor for children who need `sheltering', and those who under-achieve at school.

Governesses? Dame schools? In the 21st century - and not for the exclusive use of the children of the rich? Surely not, especially as the Royals have finally eschewed such totems of privilege in favour of the "normality" of prep and public schools.

But why not? Nannies came back to prominence - not uniformed and scrubbed, to be sure, and often shared - because they met a need. Social and educational trends point to a similar return to the social scene of the governess- cum-tutor. It is not far-fetched to speculate that a wide range of families, from the modest to the well-heeled, will in future be having their children privately tutored at least some of the time at home, instead of educated at school.

How can we know? Because it is already happening, both here and, even more so, in that mirror of the future, the United States.

First, home education is expanding significantly, on both sides of the Atlantic. Roland Meighan, special professor of education at Nottingham University, estimates that the number of families in England and Wales involved in home education has risen from 10 in 1977 to about 10,000 today. Working closely with Education Otherwise, the organisation that supports home-educating parents, he estimates that 100 new families are joining the ranks every month, more than replacing those who, for whatever reason, return to the traditional system. No one knows the exact figure, because nobody has a duty to keep central records.

Trends in the US have been monitored for the last 20 years by Dr Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Oregon. In 1978, 13,000 children were being home-schooled. This year, the number is about 1.3 million children, or 5 per cent of the school age population. Over the last five years, the annual rate of increase has been 15 per cent. "Those who started home education in the late Seventies and early Eighties were the pioneers. They were then followed by the settlers. Now we're seeing the numbers swelled by `tourists' who want to check it out for a year or two, even though they're not committed long- term," says Dr Ray.

The image many hold of a home-schooling family is one characterised by muesli-and-mess-timewarped hippies, seeking freedom in alternatives; earth parents wanting fun and fulfilment rather than factories for their children: hardly material for a boom in governesses and tutors. The reality is far from this crude caricature.

In America, Dr Ray has observed a change in parents' reasons for choosing home-schooling in the last three years. To the standard four that spurred the pioneers and settlers - a desire to teach a specific philosophical view, to maintain closer family relationships, to guide "peer interaction and socialisation" and to ensure a high academic standard - have been added two new ones. First, parents no longer believe that schools are safe places for children. Drugs, bullying, violence, and a challenging youth culture with the attendant peer pressure, make parents question where their children will develop best. Second, schools are being seen to fail on special needs, including those of gifted children. In areas with few accessible private schools, parents are inclined to spend money on tutors instead of school fees and petrol, and they are encouraged by burgeoning local support systems for home-educating families. The Americans call it "sheltering" their children.

What are the attractions on this side of the Atlantic? People are joining the home-school movement from both ends of the educational spectrum. Some fear the emotional and social consequences of increasingly formalised schooling, especially for small children, as evidenced by a growth in the numbers of parents of pre-schoolers joining Education Otherwise. There is also an increase in enquiries to agencies such as Koala Nannies for home-based care, from parents who say they don't want to institutionalise their children so young. "It's almost like boarding school, in some places," reports Koala's Pamela James-Ashburner.

Other parents do not trust state schools to deliver good academic results. One family approached David Cornelius, of the Association of Tutors, for a full-time governess/tutor despite having two children in full-time education, to enhance their learning in the evenings, at weekends and in the holidays. With the cost of private school fees, uniforms and travel cutting deep into budgets in two- and three-child families, it does not take much imagination to see how groups of families might club together, pooling costs and talents, to create new learning centres, or recreate the dame schools of old, headed by qualified teachers exhausted by the National Curriculum, ill-disciplined children and paperwork.

Again, according to Cornelius, this is already happening. Near his home a former headmistress, still in her thirties, teaches the children of four families together every morning. Her afternoons are given to more conventional tutoring. Although Hazel Chislett, of the educational consultants Gabitas, says their department for residential tutors and governesses closed some time ago, out-of-school tutoring is booming. Using live-out tutors as an alternative to schooling was "an interesting angle". Hiring a tutor, of course, allows both parents to stay in the labour market.

The demand is there; so is the supply. Reports of disillusioned teachers are legion, though no one keeps firm figures. Certainly, increasing numbers are contacting the Association of Tutors. Dr Ray reports a similar trend in the US: teachers opting for a lower income and greater quality of life through tutoring. Julia Bremner, of Knightsbridge Nannies, also gets inquiries. "They're very disillusioned, and can't live on their money" she says.

Chris Shute chose to leave school-teaching and now tutors part time. He works with excluded children and school refusers who are referred to him by the local authority, as well as with whole families. He had not heard of a tutor living in with a family, but said: "Things have got to change. Schools can't go on as they are, not when kids are killing themselves rather than go to school. I wouldn't give children who are at sea academically the National Curriculum any more than, if I were a doctor, I would bleed a patient. This has got to be the biggest change in the new millennium."

Interactive CD Roms and other developments in information technology will hasten the change. Sparsely populated territories in Australia and Canada now organise education through what are known as "cyberschools". As David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University, said, "Teaching is no longer a teacher's prerogative. Schools make children instruction-dependent, but the learning-independent person is the key to the future."

There's something in it for governments, too. Dr Ray has calculated that home-educators and their families could be saving the Oregon taxpayers alone a staggering $31m a year. Far from governess/tutors taking us back a century, they could be the key to learning in the next.

anita jemal

Anita Jemal is a doctor. She has two children aged 11 and one, and works part-time. She withdrew her eldest, who is dyslexic, from school out of desperation when he was seven "because his self-esteem had gone. Many home-educators like to do it themselves; I don't. I get everyone else to do the academic stuff: a tutor for English and for maths, after- school clubs and so on. He started to do science and technology at the local secondary school aged nine, so we have some flexi-schooling too. Once we'd done it, we realised how much freedom we'd got, how flexible it was. We had created something much more positive." Ellen Smith Ellen Smith is a full-time single mother with three children aged six, four and two. "I'm their primary educator" she said, "but I need help. Tutors back me up." She rejected the local private and state schools because of class sizes, and was influenced by her own experience of being bullied. "Smaller groups give my children time to be interested in what they are learning and get the attention they need. At home, they're not in competition with others, only against themselves. As a result they are well ahead and more confident." She pays pounds 15 an hour to an English tutor, and the same for piano lessons. They attend Kumon maths (led by a disenchanted chemistry teacher) and local French classes, visit museums, watch schools programmes on television, have swimming lessons and attend Sunday school. Would she consider a full time tutor? "It's a possibility. I don't need it. But I don't think they would be out of people's reach financially."

Leslie Barson Leslie Barson has two children aged 14 and eight. She does not believe in traditional education. She runs the Otherwise Club in north London where local home-educating families come together. Her children undertake a lot of activities with a range of different tutors, some academic, some non-academic, some at the club and some outside. "We're hardly at home. Our children experience much less peer pressure and cliquiness and they mix with other age groups." Her eldest is studying GCSE maths on his own, physics through a correspondence course and English with a friend of hers. They all learn languages together and pottery and drama are available from club-based tutors. Ellen teaches them history in a larger group and she pays for piano, violin and singing lessons.