For the majority of teenagers around the country, the Christmas holidays are just that: brief seasonal respite from the rigours of homework, revision and impending exams. A chance to do precisely nothing, before it all kicks off again.
Yet not everybody has it so easy. For an increasing number of schoolchildren, the Twixtmas break between the winter and spring terms gifts them – or perhaps, their parents – valuable time to call for reinforcements. Namely in the form of a post-Christmas, pre-New Year tutor.
“We have scholarship exams looming in February, so we like to bring in some extra support in at home when we can,” says Vicky Black, a mother of two girls and two boys in rural Gloucestershire.
Black describes her eldest daughter, 13-year-old Rosie, as “a little buried in her abilities” when it comes to non-humanities subjects, so to boost her all-rounder status before secondary school selection in the coming term, a live-in tutor has moved in at home to do three days of Latin and French lessons this week, before being replaced by a maths and sciences specialist for a two more days.
“[Rosie] will have had a day off after Christmas, but then the lessons start again. She has a fantastic work ethic – and it’s entirely with her support that we do it – this is really a revision aid, but more focused.”
Black, 42, uses Tutor House, a London-based service, to find tutors willing to live-in for the short periods over school holidays. Tutor House launched their residential service for the 2017 summer break, responding to what they considered an overwhelming surge in interest, driven by the ever-tougher arms race for school places.
In the year between the summer of 2016 and the summer of 2017, requests for live-in tutors doubled with the firm, from 50 to well over 100. As a result, clients can now choose from dozens of residential tutors with varying experience and qualifications, at any time and for as long as they see fit.
The package has an introductory price of £1,500 per week, for 30 hours of flexible tuition over six days, but the service and prices can be tailored with each pupil.
“Most of the clients we have come to us out of fear and pressure from school,” Alex Dyer, the director of Tutor House, said upon the launch of the service in June. “We don’t deal with many four-plus exams but the pressure starts from then.”
Since the summer, Black has had several recent university graduates or academics share her home for days or weeks at a time. They get their own room with a television, can eat with the family if they wish, and have been happy to provide the odd free lesson for her younger children, too.
“One tutor was vegan, so that got a bit tricky, but they just made their own meals,” she recalls, sounding mildly horrified at the memory. “One came on holiday with us to Wales. The service is expensive, but they’re all fantastic role models and teach much more generally, rather than sticking to the set exams or curriculum. Plus, since we live in the countryside, so it is a far easier and more flexible option than driving them to a tutor and having to pick them up.”
While Rosie’s perfecting her “amo amas amat” down in London, Mark Boxer’s 17-year-old daughter, Scarlett, will this week trade in the dregs of her Christmas holidays for extra lessons in her A-Level subjects of English, history and foreign languages.
“It sort of happened by accident rather than design, and it was all her idea – she came to me a couple of years ago when she did her GCSEs and asked if she could have some tutoring time in some subjects, and it has been paying dividends so far,” Boxer says. “The great upside of the tutoring route is that it’s tailored for her: one-to-one, with no distractions and at her pace, unlike college.”
After she completed her GCSEs at boarding school, Scarlett moved to a state sixth-form college in London, allowing Boxer – a divorcee who works in finance – to hire extra tutoring help. The teachers, who now visit for a few hours of lessons at a time, are successful recent university graduates, with fresh memories of being A-level students themselves.
“The expense tends to stack up, but it’s clearly affordable compared to school fees, and it’s a different type of learning,” Boxer says. As far as he knows, tutoring is commonplace in London, but he doesn’t plan to reveal to Scarlett’s college that he had hired help, for fear of being judged.
“You hear these horror stories about tiger parents forcing their children to do extra tutoring rather than letting them go out and have fun, but it isn’t like that, and I wouldn’t want people to think it was. She still does everything she wants, she doesn’t sacrifice anything.”
In Gloucestershire, tutoring is even more of a taboo. Having your friends know your child is doing extra scholarship revision instead of playing with their shiny new Christmas presents is one thing, but doing that scholarship homework with a paid-for, live-in tutor? Curtains may twitch.
“I’d feel slightly awkward telling the school, in case they thought it was a reflection on their teaching or they treated my children differently, so I don’t tell them or the other parents, and I ask Rosie not to tell her friends either,” Black says. “I think it’s more common and accepted in the city, isn’t it? Out in the sticks, though, everybody knows everybody.”
Perhaps other parents aren’t so lucky, but for Black and Boxer, their children’s enthusiasm for making productive use of their spare week before term starts means they feel no guilt in the situation. As it is, the joy of a work-free Christmas came late and ended with an abrupt halt yesterday morning for both their eldest daughters. But are they missing out on fun?
“Oh, not at all, the holidays are non-stop jollification over the actual Christmas days, I can promise you that,” Black insists. “All pupils have some revision or homework over the holidays – this just makes the most of it.”