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The rise of the super tutor

Competition for school and university places is causing a rise in 'super tutors', young men and women who charge anxious pushy parents a fortune for their skills.
  • @timwalker

What do you do when you have a first from Oxbridge, a thirst for travel, can speak 12 languages or solve complex algebraic sums in your sleep, and MI6 isn't hiring? Answer: become a "super tutor". In the past five years, London has incubated a new breed of high-powered twenty- somethings, tailored to show your child the way to five As at A-level, a place at their esteemed alma mater, or just a rich cultural hinterland.

Yes, these so-called super tutors have academic specialisms, but the best of them enjoy extraordinary lives beyond their pupils' study rooms. Their personal cachet lends them celebrity status among certain parental demographics, making them the subject of frequent bidding wars between the Joneses and whoever's trying to keep up with them. The basic rate may be £45 an hour but a super tutor can charge up to £300.

Old Harrovian and Oxford graduate Will Orr-Ewing was just 21 when he set up Keystone Tutors five years ago. The capital's tutoring scene, he says, consisted then of "two or three companies, who'd been around for a while but weren't particularly dynamic. They had one-page websites that said: 'We've got lots of good tutors.' We were the first people to publish the names and biographies of our tutors on our website; we proudly announced the people we employed."

Keystone's tutors include a polar explorer; an amateur boxing champion; and Jonny Sweet, Cambridge Footlights alumnus and winner of the 2009 Edinburgh Comedy Award for best newcomer. Orr-Ewing doesn't employ actors as a rule, "because they're always trying as far as they can not to tutor... We want people who are passionately vocational about something like music or science or adventure."

Some of Orr-Ewing's stiffest competition comes from Bright Young Things, founded by 27-year-old Old Marlburian and Oxford graduate Malachy Guinness, one of Tatler's 2011 list of the "most eligible" young men in Britain. Among his team of tutors are Max Kaufman (Oxford), a former University Challenge winner; Frog Stone (Cambridge), a television comedy writer responsible for some of Peep Show and Extras; Donald Bennet (Cam), a concert cellist; and Charlotte Jansen (Oxford), the founder and director of an agency for emerging artists and designers. Robert Pattinson's ex-girlfriend used to be on the BYT books. Ben Carson, another tutor, took advantage of flexible hours to set up his own African news and political analysis website. "When Ben was hired to tutor in the Seychelles," says Oli Eccles, BYT's 24-year-old director of education, "he used the opportunity to dig up local stories."

Naturally, Guinness won't disclose the precise identities of his clients, but suffice to say they include one of the country's top television chefs, and one of the world's most famous rock stars.

About 30 per cent of Keystone's clients, says Orr-Ewing, are "families who shift around the budget so as to give their children a short burst of tutoring to help them get a particular grade in their exams." Some of his firm's patrons, however, are "far less price-sensitive" – by which, presumably, he means filthy rich. For them, "it's not so much about passing an exam as it is about getting someone with stellar qualifications and personality to be great role models. The best English public schools – Eton, Harrow, Winchester – are the best in the world, but there is a certain tranche of families who can afford to customise their children's education even more than that."

Some clients (celebrities, fat cats, oligarchs) value the discretion of tutors and their agencies; others are so proud of their young employees that they show them off. "I went round to Sunday lunch with one family because I got on so well with their kids," Eccles recalls. "They'd also invited their art dealer friend, who was investigating Argentine art and wanted me to accompany him to Buenos Aires as a Spanish-speaking guide." A tolerance for luxury, long-distance travel, by the way, might as well be in the job description for a certified super tutor. Guinness says one of his tutors was flown to Paris for a day on a private jet to take a child around a museum.

"I've tutored in a castle in Tuscany," Eccles goes on. "I was once given 24-hours notice to board a private plane to Africa and begin an intensive tuition schedule there. Another tutor arrived in Dubai with a family that was so influential, the ruler of Malaysia was ejected from his suite to make room for them."

Acquiring a super tutor, and then holding on to him or her, can be tough. Every half-term or holiday brings a bidding war and, says Guinness, his clients don't always care to share. "I used to teach for a family that took me for eight hours per day during the school holidays. And when I asked 'are you sure you want me all day?' they just increased the hours so that I couldn't tutor anyone else."

The market for tutors is "completely recession-proof," claims Eccles. "However severe the recession, the increasing scrabble for places at good schools and universities has been even more severe." The world's economic woes have affected the tutoring business in less obvious ways. "A couple of years ago, it was hard to find a very qualified maths tutor because they tended to get snapped up by banks and financial firms. But there has been a kind of moral backlash against taking those kinds of jobs, so good maths and economics graduates are more numerous now."

One of Keystone's original team of tutors was Ed Cooke, an international "Grand Master of Memory", who recently delivered a TED (technology, entertainment, design) lecture explaining some of his specialised techniques for retaining large amounts of information. As a tutor, he could charge close to the fabled £300 an hour for his services. "I enjoy taking a kid who has failed to learn their times table for five years, and dealing with the problem in two hours," he says.

These days, however, he rarely does any one-to-one tutoring; instead, he's working on a project that, he says, could bring his learning techniques to an audience of thousands, or hundreds of thousands. Cooke's web start-up, Memrise, is launching an online game designed to speed-teach people new languages. "It's like Farmville for learning," he explains. "I believe you can almost do more with a perfectly designed computer program than you can in person... It's not ideal to only serve the children of millionaires. So the idea of Memrise is to democratise this kind of learning."

Tutors tend to be young – not only because it's a good job for a recent graduate, but also, Eccles explains, because "they're on a level below a stuffy schoolteacher. They can empathise with their pupils; they know what gets results at A-levels, but they also know what happened on The X Factor."

Most super tutors eventually go on to bigger and better things, Ed Cooke being a prime example. "We have lots of former tutors who'll soon be top lawyers or famous actors," says Eccles. "If you go back and look at our current list in a few years' time, I expect you'll recognise some of the names."