It was a kind of Eureka moment for Robert Grabiner after 30 years of working in the City. The 55-year-old father of two was anxiously trawling through the internet trying to find a tutor to help his daughter, Hannah, with her A levels after he had been made redundant – but they all seemed so pricey. Between £30 and £40 an hour seemed to be the norm.
Why not, he thought, start up a tuition service myself? And that's precisely what he has done – offering a cut-price service of £16 an hour for those who enlist for his mytutorweb.co.uk service. Using online software that creates a virtual classroom, tutors talk to their students via web cam, share a whiteboard for notes and all sessions can be recorded to watch again.
Grabiner is now part of a worldwide trend that has seen online tuition and courses mushroom over the past couple of years, with students signing on for everything from degree to refresher courses.
The recipe is simple: GCSE and A-level students are tutored by their peers – students at university who may only be three or four years older than the teenagers using his service.
"I hadn't exactly got sick and tired of working in the City," he says, "but I wasn't exactly enjoying it either. The time between getting work (after he had been made redundant) was getting longer and longer. We'd always used tutors but they were very expensive and I was amazed at how busy they were and how much money they were earning. It was very difficult to find enough time with them.
"It was then the potential idea hit me. I suppose it was a combination of me wanting to do something with my life – I wasn't on the poverty line but I wanted to do something a bit more interesting."
He started recruiting students to work as tutors last November – those accepted have to have an A* or A grade at A level in the subject they want to tutor and be studying a major element of it in their university subject. They also have to have an email address at a Russell Group university.
To begin with, he enrolled some of daughter Hannah's university friends as tutors. Hannah, aged 20, is studying at Birmingham University. Now, though, the service has grown with 350 GCSE, A-level or Scottish Highers students signed up and Mr Grabiner has 60 tutors on his books.
"At the moment I know every tutor very well and I've personally selected them myself," he says. "I see them as partners and not as employees. Lots are potential medics. They are really lively people who are doing it for reasons other than money and they like the freedom of being able to manage the tutorials themselves. I don't want them taking too many students on individually – just commit themselves to two or three students. It helps the students – they can earn some money – but it is not just the money they want. It also helps them with their courses by having to explain concepts to others. We have had some fantastic feedback from people who have signed on. I'm really impressed. A large number of them (the tutors) are far better for learning from than traditional tutors because of their commitment."
He believes that they are better communicators with their students than a traditional teacher/tutor might be. "There's not the age gap and they'll have recently been through what the students are experiencing," he says.
This thought is echoed by parents whose children have been using his service. Nabila Elahi, from north-west London, whose daughter Wafa has been using the service to brush up on her physics A level, says: "I feel the good thing about this service is the enthusiasm that the tutors communicate. It is giving university students some way of earning money, which is useful, and it is helping parents like me because you don't have to take the time to take your daughter round to the tutor's house and then pick her up again. Also, if you don't like the service, you don't have to book another session. That's it."
Mrs Elahi's daughter is hoping to go to Imperial College London to study material engineering. "She loves it," she adds. "It is very, very convenient. She is totally happy with it and is gaining confidence in her subject."
David Gibson, whose daughter Cara is studying for her GCSEs, is also enthusiastic about the service. "We were looking online for tutors and we just picked it up," said David, from Newbury in Berkshire. "We tried three in all and – with this one – it helped that I got to speak to Robert himself. It was convenience above all that decided it. We needed to get some help for Cara."
His daughter signed up for help in both maths and the sciences – biology, chemistry and physics. She is taking 13 GCSEs this summer. "The maths has been absolutely marvellous," he says. "It has certainly helped her – she has come alive about it. She is sitting there (at the computer) half-an-hour before the session starts just waiting for it. It is absolutely fantastic – there is no doubt in my mind. It has been a really big factor in boosting Cara's confidence."
Up until now, it has been a labour of love for Mr Grabiner, as it is still in its infancy and he is not yet making any money from it. He has plans for expansion, though. "The demand from students at the last minute (before the exams) is unbelievable. People who were taking just one subject are now taking two or three," he says. "I think there's the potential for this to go very large in the near future. By this time next year I genuinely believe we will have made an impact on the market – and that other people will try and replicate this."
Even if it does threaten him with competition, he argues it will be very good news for parents, as they will be able to move away from those who charge £40 an hour for their services.
He is also planning to move into new areas – possibly by providing help for entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge and other elite universities and signing on students from abroad. The International Baccalaureate is in his sights, too.
Individual schools are also asking about his service – possibly for groups of pupils. One raised the prospect of using the Government's new pupil premium – available to schools for every free-school-meals pupil they take in – to help disadvantaged students improve their exam results.
At the moment, though, Mr Grabiner gives a more-than-passable impression of being a kid with a new toy. "I'm getting real satisfaction out of it," he says. "What I used to do in the city – I could quite rarely see the value of it, but I enjoy this immensely."
Online and on the money: more virtual tutoring
A background as a financier plus a desire to help relatives out with their studies seems to be a common characteristic of the new breed of online tuition service providers.
Globally, perhaps the most remarkable service is that offered by the Khan Academy – which is said to have caught the eye of Downing Street for its provision of free online tuition material from a base in the US. Sal Khan was working as a financial analyst in 2004 when he started tutoring his cousin, Nadia, in Louisiana, who was struggling with maths.
He now offers a tutoring, mentoring and testing educational website at khanacademy.org that offers its content free to anyone with internet access who wants to take advantage of its exercises and videos. Most of the material is narrated by Khan himself. It offers tutorials in arts, computing and science – although its core remains the provision of help with secondary-school maths, the sort of help his little cousin, Nadia, found fruitful.
By 2009, Khan had decided to leave the hedge fund for which he was working. Within a year he had secured the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his operation after the US billionaire had used the service to tutor his own child.
His materials can be used by parents to help their children with their homework – and can set the pupils exercises to help them with their studies.
Robert Grabiner and Sal Khan are not in direct competition – Grabiner is concentrating on tutorial help for specific exams and offers one-to-one hour-long tutorials with student mentors.
However, both are examples of the growing trend in education to rely on online support to supplement what goes on in the classroom – which is attracting the interest of growing numbers of schools in the UK.