Jane Bradley: Regulation is needed for tutors

Under current rules private tutors are not required to undergo any background checks before offering lessons to young people. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoUnder current rules private tutors are not required to undergo any background checks before offering lessons to young people. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Under current rules private tutors are not required to undergo any background checks before offering lessons to young people. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
There seems to be just one industry where workers can have contact with children without checks, says Jane Bradley

I worked as a private tutor once when I was living abroad. It was fun, for the most part.

I had one young student who paid me in eggs laid by the family hen when her parents didn’t have the money for extra classes before an exam. It was a time of delicious omelettes in my house.

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Then there was another, adult student, who actually spoke the language perfectly as a near-native English speaker, but was both so cripplingly shy and also so overpoweringly literal in nature that he found it impossible to answer the questions posed to him in a speaking exam.

Requests such as “If a visitor came to your home town, what would you suggest they see and why?” left him in a quandry. His hometown, he eventually explained, after minutes of silence and wringing of hands, was not particularly interesting to tourists, so he had nothing to say.

This was a long time ago, but after a ten year gap working as a journalist in Edinburgh, I spotted an ad placed by a Hungarian neighbour looking for an English tutor to give some intensive classes to help him through a conversation exam he was due to sit. It would be a change, I thought. A one-off chance to do something different.

I offered my services, agreed what, with hindsight, was an incredibly bargainous fee for him, and we spent a few nights a week going through the finer points of English grammar and exam technique. I enjoyed every minute of it.

I had coached some students through this same exam when I was living abroad, so I wasn’t a complete novice. I was, however, a little rusty. Thankfully, he passed with flying colours.

But, as my brief foray back into the industry proved, setting up as a private tutor is easy. Anyone can do it.

That is not to say anyone can be a good tutor. But anyone can place an ad offering their teaching services and, if someone is happy to pay them the sum they request, they can take it up as a career, or a part-time money earner.

And it’s nice work if you can get it. Being a private tutor means flexible hours; you can set your own pay and take on rewarding and satisfying work.

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Yet, from the point of view of the tutee, it is a minefield. It is entirely unregulated.

Safety concerns aside, I could have done this without having any background in teaching; any background in English as a foreign language or indeed, any academic background whatsoever. As could anyone.

The private tutoring market is growing. According to a report published by the Sutton Trust, private tuition in the UK has risen by over a third from 18 per cent in 2005 to 25 per cent in 2015. Youngsters who do not have a tutor increasingly feel at a disadvantage when it comes to the exam years.

Most established tutors are finding themselves run off their feet. Many parents who withdrew their youngsters from private education during the recession are making up for it by spending a fraction of the money on private tutoring, boosting the numbers.

But, often finding tutors via adverts on dedicated websites, or indeed, other generic forums such as Gumtree, parents have no idea who it is they are inviting into their home.

Last month, charity the NSPCC warned that a lack of mandatory record checks left students vulnerable to unscrupulous tutors.

One experienced private tutor I met, Edinburgh-based Andy Williamson, points out that a convicted criminal could easily set up as a private tutor, unless parents demand to carry out their own checks.

He uses the example of one man he has heard of, a former primary school teacher and convicted paedophile, who has since been released from prison.

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On paper, he says, this man would be an ideal tutor, a dream for any parent looking for a bit of extra help for their child. A former teacher, a top-class degree from a good university. He could quite easily change his name, use a middle name, for example – and few would be likely to unearth any of his sordid history, even if they bothered to do a bit of research on Google.

What is most worrying is that it is parents who are most blasé about the situation.

Mr Wiliamson’s agency, AW Tuition, as many of the major players do, insists his teachers have a registered background check. Yet despite this, he says, he has never once been asked to show a parent certification of his check.

Usually, when classes are taking place, parents are present. In the house at least. But that does not mean that a tutor is not alone with a young person for a considerable length of time.

And it appears to be the only industry where workers have any contact with young people who do not need to be checked. Lollipop ladies. Doctors. Vets. The live-in partner of anyone applying to be a registered childminder. They all need to be checked. Yet a private tutor, who spends intense time in a room alone with a single student, does not.

Williamson has written to the Scottish Government, asking them to consider some regulation in the industry - looking at both background checks and qualifications and ideally, both.

Yet the reply he has had states that tutors have the option to sign up to Disclosure Scotland - at a cost of £59 - and that the government has “currently no plans to introduce a mandatory accreditation scheme”. Those considering hiring a tutor can also, according to the government, pay for a “disclosure of their statement of scheme membership” at a cost of £18, if the tutor in question is signed up to the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) disclosure scheme.

It seems it is in a parent’s hands to ensure they know in whose hands they are putting their children’s education. And by the sounds of it, most need to step up their game.