Elocution tutors for three year olds, language training for preschoolers… Coaching toddlers to gain entrance to the most vaunted prep schools is now the norm. Sally Jones asks if ambitious parents are throwing money at the wall – and hindering their children in the process.
“Oliver’s a real Renaissance boy” boasted one of the yummier mummies at a well-known Midlands prep school. “He could read at 3 and he’s a whizz at Kumon Maths. He goes to a chess club; he’s started French with a tutor; he’ll be taking a music scholarship for Rugby and his cricket coach says he’s got fantastic batting technique.”
It might sound an impressive roster of achievements but, unnervingly, her little paragon is just 6 years old. As his mother elaborated on his ‘enrichment’ activities, including tutoring in Science and Spanish conversation classes, I spotted his expressionless little face and anxious eyes and felt a pang of sympathy.
Did he ever get a moment to climb a tree or catch newts unsupervised? It seems that Oliver’s mum, a former City high-flyer, had simply shifted her own aspirations to her son and was dedicated to living vicariously through him, whether he liked it or not.
This is admittedly an extreme example but the growing prevalence of tutoring for children as young as three, usually designed to ensure their admission to the most sought-after London pre-prep schools, is becoming a major talking point among the ambitious middle classes.
Top schools receive hundreds of applications, some with up to five children competing for every place. £15,000-a year North London Collegiate junior school currently selects 40 four-year-olds from around 200 applicants, observing them interacting in small groups to assess their readiness to learn. Shortlisted children then undergo a further interview involving a group activity and individual work with a member of staff. The school even takes references from playgroups and nursery schools. Although they try to discourage coaching for what is intended to be an ‘informal assessment’, insiders say that some Tiger Mothers, fighting to buy even a fractional advantage for their little prodigies, engage elocution teachers and tutors to try to impart precocious speaking and literacy skills, often well before the child is ready to absorb them.
Jo Newman, the head, insists that this is counter-productive, telling the Good Schools Guide:
“I always tell parents if they’re paying to coach three-year-olds, they might as well burn £20 notes. The only useful preparation is to talk to them, play with them and read them stories.”
Nice try, but to some hyper-ambitious parents, free time is for losers. Gwyneth Paltrow sent aspirational elite into a flat spin when she and Chris Martin reportedly advertised for a £62,100-a-year Mekon-brained super-tutor-cum-sports-star to impart art, painting, drama, tennis, chess, Mandarin Chinese, sailing, philosophy and French, as well as Latin and Greek (of course) to their children, Moses and Apple – who were then aged just 5 and 7… (the story was later denied).
“There is a tendency for an arms race in classrooms, where tutors are the payload,” explained former Classics tutor Josh Spero who now edits the wealth magazine Spear’s. “If Johnny has a tutor, then Jimmy needs one too. Call in the ranks of begowned graduates! Firsts only, please! You speak three languages? Disappointing, we were hoping for Mandarin too. Next!”
So does keeping up with the Paltrows and seeing young tutors filing in and out of your neighbours’ houses leave you wondering whether you should give in to the pressure and do the same, in case your child gets left behind? It can be extraordinarily difficult to resist the herd mentality, particularly when every playdate and drinks party seems dominated by wild-eyed mothers boring on about the chances of little Cosmo gaining admission to the school of their (parents’) dreams.
When my own children were little, ambitious friends were appalled when we eschewed both tutoring and the big-name educational establishments considered de rigueur in our area, choosing what one scornfully condemned as ‘a crappy little prep school’.
It was quirky and haphazard in its teaching but the friendly laid-back style gave the children the time to run their own detective club, develop a passion for plane-spotting and read voraciously – everything from Harry Potter to E.Nesbit.
They suffered none of the burn-out of their more conformist, heavily-tutored peers and when our son sat the exam for Eton aged 11, he was asked to bring the book he was reading at the time. His fellow-candidates, a group of 20 boys from a top Berkshire prep school were immaculate in tweed jackets and accompanied by a master in tweed plus fours. Every single one had brought a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities”, presumably their set book. To our dismay, our lad had selected the Molesworth classic, “Down with Skool” and sat giggling over it in the waiting room. He was offered a place.
So what are the rights and wrongs of tutoring and how do you steer a line between free-range, feral children who can barely write their names and careworn drudges whose entire life is devoted to measurable achievement?
Lucy Williamson, an educational psychologist, former tutor and headmistress of the independent prep and pre-prep Lloyd Williamson School in West London is ambivalent but recognises tutoring has its place.
“There is intense competition for places and for good exam grades, particularly in some of the high-flying independent schools, and tutoring has a role to play,” she insists. “If my daughter is not tutored when preparing for an important exam and she’s up against children who are being tutored several hours a week for the same subject, I’m placing her at a disadvantage.
“We have one or two kids at school with learning delays. The hour’s tutoring and encouragement they receive each week is vital to them, bringing them up to speed in areas where they’re struggling – but most of all it puts fun and confidence back into learning.”
At Fulham Prep, too, tutoring is used to help children with specific needs. Headmistress Jane Emmett has invited Enjoy Education, a private tuition company to support the growing numbers of pupils with English as a second language.
“We realised that we needed extra support to make sure that these children integrated into the school community quickly and can access the curriculum fully,” she explained. “These after-school tutoring sessions have made a big difference and have allowed the teaching staff to ensure that the children are completely involved in all aspects of the school.”
Lucy Williamson admits that over-tutoring is a different matter entirely and carries huge risks to children’s physical and mental health.
“The problem,” she warns, “comes with the number of children being tutored several hours a week, even before school, which is ridiculous. At a previous school I saw a little boy of just six who was clinically depressed; crying, withdrawn, and waking early, tearful. He was very bright but so anxious he was blocked.”
Charles Bonas, director of tutoring firm Bonas Macfarlane, remembers another chilling example of pressure-cooking parenting:
“We disengaged when the mother referred to her son’s friends by their class rankings rather than their names; potential play dates only made the cut if they were in the top five!”
Education guru Sue Palmer, a former headmistress and author of the influential book ‘Toxic Childhood’ believes that the problems triggered by over-tutoring and parental pressures usually surface in adolescence.
“The hormones are going; stresses build up and teenagers are increasingly likely to develop depression,” she explained. ‘We have an explosion of anorexia among girls feeling they’re expected to be perfect. Appallingly, one in five self-harm. The pressures stem both from tutoring and the billion clubs and classes children are ferried to, allowing no time just to play, which they need. Adults are directing children’s minds rather than letting them get on with it themselves.”
Several high-flying schools, including King Edward’s High School for Girls in Birmingham, actively discourage tutoring and even offer Mindfulness sessions to help bright, ambitious students develop the calmness and resilience to cope with a busy school schedule and the pressures of parental expectations.
So how to decide whether or not to have your child tutored? Josh Spero warns that parents must look realistically at their child’s academic needs and their own motivations.
“This is much more about parental insecurity than academic deficiency,” he says “There are times when most children can benefit from tutoring whatever their attainment. The bright ones can be stretched and the slower ones brought up to speed. But before you pick up the phone, consider that there’s a time and a place and ask yourself: do they really need it at this specific time? Tutoring should be the answer to a puzzle or a problem – but not a lifestyle.”Sally Jones was Britain’s first networked woman TV sports presenter, fronting BBC Olympics coverage and Breakfast News. She writes widely on news, education, sport and health for the Daily Telegraph, Hello! magazine and the Daily Mail. She has tutored (unqualified) several friends’ children in Latin, Maths, French, English and tennis and has a 100% record in 11+ passes. Follow Sally on Twitter.