The Dangers of Hothousing Bright Children
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The Dangers of Hothousing Bright Children

It's all about striking a good balance says mother and former tutor, Sally Jones

Tutoring has its place but it shouldn’t be used for hothousing bright, academically-able children. 


Tutoring. It’s a topic guaranteed to polarise opinion in any school staffroom or west London dinner party. For some, it’s the Holy Grail that can magically transform their child’s skillset and academic prospects. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin upped the ante among the aspirational elite when they advertised for a £62,100-a-year Renaissance genius-cum-super-tutor to teach their children, Moses, then five, and Apple, seven. Even this generous salary looks penny-pinching however, compared to the £10,000 which Oxford graduate Topes Calland received for just ten hours of tuition. He helped prepare the son of ambitious Asian royals for his Oxford interview. History does not relate whether the boy got in, which suggests he probably didn’t.

To the ‘let children be children’ brigade, this is anathema. They see it as the joyless hothousing of already stressed and anxious youngsters, who imbibe – along with their Kumon maths sessions and endless recitation of Latin irregular verbs – the subliminal message that only achievement matters.

‘It’s a mistake to imagine that the only satisfaction comes from being top,’ says Mary Dibdin, mother of three children, two of whom are dyslexic. ‘It’s lovely to excel at something. With the right encouragement, children can gain a lot of pleasure and confidence from working hard, improving and learning to do something well, regardless of exam results. Perhaps we should also remember that in most careers it’s a case of ten per cent talent and 90 per cent grafting, and that demands enthusiasm.’

Tutoring in schools

Lucy Williamson, headmistress of the Lloyd Williamson School, is ambivalent. A respected Cambridge-trained educational psychologist and a former tutor, Williamson acknowledges that tutoring has its place within a competitive school admissions system.

‘There is intense competition for places 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, I’m placing her at a disadvantage.’

Slowly schools are beginning to acknowledge that there is a place for tutoring in schools. Fulham Prep invited Enjoy Education in to support the increasing numbers of children enrolling for whom English is a second language. Enjoy Education’s managing director, Kate Shand, former vice-president and founding member of The Tutors’ Association (TTA), believes that with proper assessment, tutoring can actually reduce stress by setting out clear strategies and aims.’

‘Tutoring is also useful in helping children with specific learning difficulties,’ adds Williamson. ‘We have one or two kids at school with learning delays. The hour’s tutoring and encouragement they receive each week is very important to them. It brings them up to speed in areas where they’re struggling. But most of all it puts fun and confidence back into learning.’

The problem with hothousing

Over-tutoring, admits Williamson, is another matter entirely. ‘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. He was crying, withdrawn, and waking early, tearful.’

Sue Palmer, a former headmistress and author of the influential book Toxic Childhood, believes that the problems triggered by hothousing 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.’

Palmer believes that parents started putting this pressure onto children in the ’80s, seeing them as projects, not individuals. ‘Parents felt that life is hard, so to get on they must succeed and make money. They believed in buying children the best activities and extra tutoring.’ She suggests there is a confusion with money spent being seen as a gesture of love and calls it ‘competitive consumerism’. As a parent of two children who were not tutored but got into good schools and then Oxbridge, and an occasional tutor myself, it seems that the more driven parents are less concerned about de-stressing their child than in keeping up with the Joneses.

I have seen this syndrome of transferred aspiration specifically among my more high-flying, competitive friends. They drove themselves and their children half demented as they shifted the focus of their fierce ambition onto their offspring, living vicariously through them and tutoring them to the hilt to get them into top schools. Charles Bonas, director of the long-established tutoring firm Bonas Macfarlane, remembers one example of a pressure-cooking parenting regime. ‘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.’

Pushy parents

To be fair, parents are driven by their perception of a high level of competitiveness in the global jobs market, and their concern that if their children are not winning they will be condemned to the life of an also-ran. I recently met a shell-shocked headmistress reeling after a tearful hour-long harangue from an ambitious mother, furious that her child had not won a coveted place in the school Symphony orchestra despite endless violin lessons and four hours practice a night.

‘When someone says “no”, the pushiest parents merely see this as a basis for negotiation,’ observed the head sadly. ‘They impose yet more lessons and tutoring on their unfortunate children. And then they wonder why their child has so little confidence, often rebelling by rejecting their parents’ aspirations for them.’

There is nothing more demotivating than being over-tutored to get into a school, especially if it doesn’t fit the academic abilities of the child. When my children passed into the academic King Edward’s in Birmingham, I checked that they were reasonably far up the intake before accepting a place. I did not want them to be ‘bumping along the bottom’ however hard they worked. For those who are, it’s soul-destroying and a shame as those same children could have been top performers at less academic schools.

‘Your education sets you up for life, so it’s important that kids don’t kick against it because it’s taught in too dull a manner. That’s where an inspiring tutor can help,’ says former classics tutor Josh Spero who now edits the wealth magazine Spear’s and has observed all the vagaries of the hyper-competitive high-roller.

A different approach

With these sentiments in mind, former Hurlingham School teacher Tash Rosin recently launched Teatime Tutors in London after noticing that her charges were tired, hungry and unfocused after a long day at school. The children are given a nutritious supper while receiving help with homework.

Another innovative idea designed to lessen the stress for the older hard-pressed youngsters is online study. Bertie Hubbard, 25, a Durham University graduate, co-founded virtual tutoring business MyTutorWeb in 2013. Since then he has organised 10,000 tutorials given by 400 bright young tutors, covering 70 subjects from £16-an-hour. Hubbard is convinced that the system boosts teenagers’ prospects whether its an Oxbridge interview or a public school scholarship exam.

‘Technology has moved on and online study is fast becoming the norm,’ he says. ‘Pupils find it much more engaging working on an interactive screen with a bright student of similar age than sharing a textbook with a tutor.’

Over the decades Charles Bonas has encountered thousands of families in search of the perfect tutor but warns that parents must look realistically at their child’s academic needs as well as their own motivation for buying in extra teaching.

‘This is much more about parental insecurity than adolescent academic deficiency,’ says Spero. ‘Nobody will deny that there are times when most children can benefit from tutoring whatever their attainment, because the bright ones can be stretched and the slower ones brought up to speed. But before you pick up the phone, consider that there is 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.’

READ MORE: Finding a private tutor