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Thursday 24th January 2013

I used to be quite shy about my prowess at tutoring A-level biology...every success was a ‘lucky fluke’ against the odds and I brooded endlessly upon the few who didn’t quite hit the grade. In recent years, however, I have learnt to get my candle from under its bushel and brag about what I do. I am damned good at this job!

If people ask me about my ‘results’ I still, however, demur. My invariable comment is that my students “usually get the result they deserve”. This is a team effort and it really does take two to tango in the tutoring world. If my particular student horse won’t be made to drink all that I can do is lead it to the water. After 23 years in the business I realise that even the best tutor is no substitute for what is really needed - and that must come from within.

The flames of my recent self-awareness has been fanned by the realisation that good instructors are born and not made. After years of picking up the pieces left by the many inept ‘trained teachers’ it suddenly occurred to me that you really can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. A lot of people, including the ‘government’ (how I hate that word - are we all so useless and evil that we need so much ‘government’?) still won’t countenance the logical and sensible idea of teacher selection rather than teacher training which MUST come at some stage for educational sanity to prevail. Interestingly, the USA is moving towards this concept, but as always the UK lags behind.

Two observations pour logical cold water on the delusion that teachers lacking talent can be ‘trained’ into good ones. The first is that the British public (ie private) schools have used ‘non-qualified’ teachers since their inception - and their academic results consistently spank the state sector as they have to respond to market discipline and get the results. The second observation (in response to the fatuous notion that “you wouldn’t want to be operated on by a untrained surgeon, so why allow your children to be taught by an untrained teacher”?) is that selection for entry to the profession of surgery is relentless and demanding. Fewer than one in thirty candidates make it to medical school and only a small fraction of these get to be decent surgeons. By contrast pretty much any graduate in the UK can apply for ‘teacher training’ and get a place somewhere - and two years later be a ‘qualified teacher’. Furthermore there is currently no market rigour in the so-called ‘teaching profession’ - bad teachers are not only very difficult to sack, they also get paid the same as their more gifted colleagues. Bad tutors, by contrast, don’t get the work and go out of business. You can’t buck Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the free market.

It is hardly a new observation that an endless cycle is thus perpetuated, stemming from a fundamental cultural aversion of the British people to investing publicly in their most valuable commodity - their youth. Low pay and low status attracts many poor candidates to school teaching - who often (but not always) manufacture a poor product which is not seen as worthy of further investment.

Happily (or unhappily, depending on viewpoint) it is not illegal in the UK to pay for education and so, for the well-britched few, the logjam can be broken by the application of a bit of moolah. It is quite conspicuous that whereas Asians make up (I believe) 7% of the British population, my teaching books are usually filled with up to 40% Asian students. Culturally, those from Asian countries (like the Celtic fringe) still see education as a means of ‘escape’ from poverty and hence something in which to invest. After many decades of graduate unemployment and the frequent comment to teachers “if you’re so smart how come you are so poor?” the same cannot be said of much of the indigenous population of England.

Several people have commented to me that what a tutor does is easier than what a classroom teacher does - but this only a partially fair observation. Generally I only teach those who want to be taught and so the advanced riot control that constitutes so much ‘teaching’ is simply not on the agenda for me. This opens up a whole new ball park with regard to WHY the students are so disconnected from what they are forced to study at some schools, but let’s not go there just now. The fact is, however, that I have also taught groups of various sizes from 2 up to 60 and the universal comment has been “Why don’t they do it this way at school?” My colleague Mario - also a very old hand at tutoring - was asked to ‘cover’ for an absent school teacher for a term and was rather embarrassed to hand over a class that has finished the syllabus already in one term. Conventional school-level teaching does appear to be a lot slower than it needs to be. The cynic might be tempted to say that a lot of this is designed to justify the existence of teachers who feel themselves ‘overloaded’ if asked to teach 20 periods a week (by contrast, in the 80s I was often teaching 65 hours a week with relative ease - hell, I take 10 weeks off over the summer, which is better than most!).

One or two of my students have professed total amazement at my ability to write notes, from memory, on the entire A-level syllabus. To me this is normal and anyone who can’t do it should not be a tutor. But do note that if I were a ‘proper’ teacher I would almost certainly be heavily censured for not writing ‘lesson plans’. Yet more ‘tyranny of mediocrity’ - setting a minimum standard and adhering rigidly to it.

Successful tutors such as myself actually clearly have much to teach the ‘teaching profession’ rather than vice-versa. This has been demonstrated to me quite clearly by having been asked on two occasions, by two very reputable private colleges, to set up training sessions for their existing tutors - many of whom were ‘trained teachers’. I refused on both occasions out of that misplaced sense of diffidence and would probably do so now - but on the rather different grounds that I simply do not think that the vast majority of the tutors would be capable of doing it my way!

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