This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Along with Lidl and loan sharks, the UK tuition industry has thrived throughout the recession. It is now valued in excess of a staggering £6 billion ($9 billion) a year. In turn, we have seen the emergence of a new strain of high-powered career tutors who charge as much as top-end lawyers to educate the offspring of the super rich. Because what else is there to do when you leave university swimming in debt and neck-deep in rejections from street food startups? Given the current state of the job market, it's little surprise that many fraught graduates are helping rich kids pass their A-levels.
The job goes beyond grades. With many tutoring websites heralding the effect of their services on confidence, manners, and etiquette, it's more like finishing school for hot-housed millennials. It is not uncommon for pushy parents to pay £300 ($467) an hour, but for others, this is at the tight-fisted end of fees. Take Mark Maclaine—one of the most in-demand super tutors around—who has been known to charge £1000 ($1,550) an hour. "In that instance, the family asked me to come to the Far East and tutor their kids for an Eton entrance exam at the last minute," he says. "They'd heard from another family that I'd done a really good job with their kid and when they put this offer out there, I couldn't refuse."
Since embarking on his career as a private tutor 17 years ago, Maclaine has enjoyed his fair share of luxury, long-distance travel: "The list of places I've been to is pretty big. From Brazil to America, Europe, United Arab Emirates, Russia, the Caribbean, and more. But after a while, you get desensitized to it. I've tutored on Jumbo Jets that are laid out to be like houses where you get your own bedroom, and on yachts and sailing boats that have cinemas on them."
As the industry has boomed, parents' attitudes have simultaneously shifted says Maclaine, whose work and the high regard internationally for the British private school system means he now owns three properties in London. "People are a lot more open about admitting they have tutoring. Parents are now going, 'If you have a tutor, I should have a tutor, we should all have a tutor.' A lot of parents feel like if they don't give tutoring to their kids, they're going to get left behind."
For this reason, Maclaine makes sure he doesn't just work for top-end clients—he helps out people who aren't able to pay anything along with "high-end clients such as royal family, movie stars, rockstars, and bankers." He has also been involved in setting up Tutor Fair, an agency that provides free tutoring for children who cannot afford it. "I really wanted to do something that was actually fair. We've helped 2,000 kids in the state system, kids in city schools, kids on free lunches…"
Ruby Robson* is another tutor who has edified the progeny of the mega-rich. "I worked for an agency in Europe, but you won't find it online. It's a secret tutoring agency that works by word of mouth. A banker will tell his banker friend who will tell his other rich friend. Only the elite of the elite send their kids there and they don't want just anybody to find out about it," she explains.
Robson stumbled across the clandestine agency while studying at Oxford: "They put an email out in my final year. I guess they did the same at Cambridge as they only recruit from Oxbridge. They're not even that interested in seeing your CV."
While spending a month tutoring last summer, Robson says she met a lot of kids she will not forget, but not because of their educational prowess. "If I'm honest, the kids' attitudes have ranged from disinterested at best to obstructive at worst. Although some of them were really nice, they're all incredibly over-privileged and spoon-fed. Sometimes if you tried to get them to work, they got angry." To be fair, how many children wouldn't throw a wobbly if you asked them to spend hours doing extracurricular study after a 9AM - 8PM school day, seven days a week? It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the little billionaires-in-waiting.
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Robson is less than effusive about her time tutoring. "Perpetuating the system of privilege really stuck in my throat. After all, you're just helping the kids who've got the most money. In my darker moments, I felt the only thing Oxford had prepared me for was to train other people to go to Oxford."
As with many, tutoring was only ever intended as a stop gap for Robson. But while she's since moved into media, many graduates inadvertently remain tutors for far longer than they expect. Glamorous destinations, Gulfstream jets, inter-family bidding wars, and City-level salaries make it increasingly appealing.
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So, what is driving the recent growth of the tutoring industry? All of the main tutoring agencies in Britain primarily cater for private school education. To name just a few, Bonas McFarlane, Titanium Tutors, and Keystone Tutors all cater for 7/8+ prep school exams and 11+ exams for "the most prestigious private schools" and the highest ranked universities. If you want to get your boy sprogs into Eton, Harrow, Winchester, or Westminster and your girl sprogs into Wycombe Abbey, St Paul's, or Cheltenham Ladies, you're hardly going to go it alone.
For this very reason, many agencies provide exorbitant consultancy services that advise parents on every single stage of the application process. As Bonas McFarlane readily explain on their website, "Our consultants are in touch daily with the leading UK independent schools. We have a team of administrators who know the different and precise procedures of each institution—from registration deadlines to testing requirements." If this wasn't enough, Bonas McFarlane also provide, "School Liason: We consult and negotiate with schools, at times making detailed personal recommendations to these selected schools." It seems that the name of your university and the color of your blood counts for a lot more than the class of your degree, teaching qualification, or specialist experience. As such, the "shadow education sector" lacks industry regulation and a standards body.
Not that this is likely to put off the increasing number of Russians, Saudis, Chinese, and others from overseas who are looking to buy their way into the British private school system. Who better to help your Kazakh billionaire child get into Eton than a helicoptered-in former Bullingdon member?
It goes without saying that private tuition creates and exacerbates social inequality. Not only does it distort and undervalue the state curriculum, it exhausts human capital and financial resources that could be invested in those who need it. In a culture cursed by obsessive aspiration, most super tutors work to keep the rich rich and the poor poor—but in spite of this, private tuition remains a relatively invisible and overlooked force in a polarized education sector.
*Ruby Robson is a pseudonym.
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