When I used to give private English lessons in Italy, I found clients sporadically by word of mouth, charged € 10 an hour – which was often part-paid in garden produce – and never once set foot on a private jet.
However, after reading A Class of Their OwnMatt Knott’s curiously compelling account of tutoring well-to-do London families in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it quickly became clear that I’d been doing it all wrong.
Drawn to the job by the lackluster employment market and assisted by a kind of academic matchmaking agency, Knott plunges into a world where £ 30 an hour is the base rate, prep-school coaching begins at age seven and writing UCAS personal statements for university applications is contracted out to consultants.
Millions of British parents spent more on their children’s education last year in an attempt to reconcile an increasingly uneven system with record competition for university places. It is no surprise that private tuition and summer schools are finding favor in a country where successive lockdowns have caused severe disruption to learning and greater opportunities are already afforded to those who are willing to pay for them. As rising living costs force poorer families to tighten their belts, wealthy Londoners are adding another notch to theirs in the form of a tutor.
Having himself attended a private school on a scholarship, Knott approaches tutoring with a “minor victim complex, and a lifelong insecurity around rich people”, proving a suitably self-effacing foil to his clients’ outlandish behavior. This ranges from an oligarch spanking him with birch in the family’s private banya to the advances of a tight-trousered butler and the appalling interior design of a restaurant which his hosts invite him to and subsequently reveal they own.
Of course, he is often just as complicit in the absurdity of the job. Asked to help a student with a long-division problem, he is stumped and ends up texting his father for the answer. After all, he inhabits a world where the right university on your CV is worth more than relevant qualifications. “Do not worry about your experience,” the woman from the agency tells him. “You went to Cambridge. Clients love that. ”
Parents pay Knott handsomely in the hope that his alma mater will fix waning grades by osmosis – though academic improvement is not always their only motivation. What they actually seem to want for their children is a friend, or a nanny, or a father figure. And for many, private tutoring is as much a totem of social status as it is a learning aid. “To be honest, they barely need me,” he tells one Kensington mother. “No,” she replies, “but everyone else in their class has a tutor.”
The demand for tutors is rising accordingly. Between 2009 and 2019, the proportion of students in England and Wales receiving private tuition doubled. This is likely to have grown further during the pandemic: online platform MyTutor reported that its customer base had trebled during school closures, with higher-income families disproportionately likely to make use of such services.
Not everyone that Knott tutors is uber-wealthy. Many of the students who actually seem to benefit from his presence are from less well-off families and lack the confidence to make use of their talents in school. In these lessons, the stakes are higher: “Here the cost of the lesson was palpable, rather than a rounding error in a vast weekly budget,” he writes.
Still, A Class of Their Own is not so much an in-depth analysis of inequality in education as it is a tongue-in-cheek observation of an unfamiliar side to London, entertainingly narrated (even when the aspiring screenwriter in Knott begins to sound a little like Adrian Mole) and full of farce.
Not long before he calls time on his tutoring career, the woman at the agency offers Knott the chance to go full-time – with a proper salary and a pension. “It’s a real game-changer,” she says, delighted at her ingenuity and blissfully unaware that she has just invented the teacher.
A Class of Their Own: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Rich by Matt Knott, Trapeze, £ 16.99, 336 pages
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