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I'm a novelist and playwright, traditionally and independently published.

Friday, December 30, 2005

To Tutor or not to Tutor

few days ago, there was the usual seasonal piece on a Scottish news programme about exam results and the fact that, at this time of the year, parents suddenly start looking for tutors for their children (“ totally unregulated” was the shock horror addition.) There was the usual brisk young spokesman for the department of education, firmly toeing the party line about how schools can teach kids everything they need to know, while tutors only cause children stress. Well I have news for that rather smug young man. In an ideal world, schools would teach kids all they need to know. But this is a far from ideal world, and so many schools in Scotland are struggling with a multitude of problems. I know, because I was once chair of our local secondary school board. Frankly, it was a nightmare.
Not the least of our many problems was that the school was smaller than average. Teachers, not surprisingly, would use it as a stepping stone to somewhere better. Especially good teachers. Having applied for and gained a new job, many of them had to leave immediately, leaving whole classes of children in the lurch, mid term. The comparatively small size of the school also meant that subjects and, perhaps more importantly, combinations of subjects were very limited. But classes were generally crowded because the school could never afford, or even attract, enough teachers.
Our son found quite early on in his school career that he simply couldn’t cope with maths. And neither my husband, nor myself, knew enough to help him. His maths teacher was excellent – I have nothing but praise for him, as a clever, dedicated, respected man - but the class was full of people for whom primary school maths had proved something of a mystery, and he was invariably struggling to bring them all up to the required standard at once while wrestling with the discipline problems involved in “inclusion” policies, which basically meant disruption.
Since our son was a bright kid, and also no trouble in class, everyone assumed he was managing. He wasn’t. We visited the school and talked to his teacher, who was hugely sympathetic, but nothing improved. I suspect the teacher simply didn’t have enough time to cope with the volume of work needed. I bought books, and struggled to stay ahead of the game, but I couldn’t seem to sort it out for him either. There were sleepless nights, panics, tears. Only those who have gone through something similar will understand the stress involved for all concerned.
“Once I leave school” he said, “I will never, ever do any maths again.”
In despair, I contacted a friend, a school teacher whose son had had similar problems. He seemed to be doing OK now. She gave me the phone number of an elderly retired engineer who tutored schoolkids in maths and physics. We couldn’t really afford the fees, but we had been left a little money by my parents, and decided to invest some of it in tutorials. After the first session, the tutor chatted to us over tea and biscuits. “No wonder he’s struggling” he told us. “There’s a big gap in his knowledge. It makes everything difficult for him.”
At his otherwise excellent village primary school, our son had been a little slow at maths. It was the way he worked. He liked to have everything explained, and take his time, but once he understood a concept, it was firmly embedded. He was in a class of eight. Three or four of them seemed to have a natural ability with numbers. He was placed in that group, but couldn’t keep up. His teacher suggested placing him with the other little group, where he would always be top, in order to improve his confidence. It improved no end, but unfortunately he also missed out on whole chunks of knowledge. Like most kids, he needed what neither of his schools seemed able to provide –a friend who is a distinguished educationalist calls it “teaching the child, not the subject.”
During his second session with the tutor, a strange and unfamiliar sound emerged from the room where they were working. It was the sound our son laughing. Laughing over maths. Astonishing. He had never laughed over maths in his life before. At that point, I realised that whatever it took, we would carry on with the lessons.
That was some six years ago. He passed his standard grade with flying colours and got an “A” at Higher, with very little trouble, and almost no stress. The tutorials dovetailed very nicely with what he was doing at school, where his sympathetic maths teacher – fortunately – didn’t disapprove of the tutor’s methods. His tutor simply gave him the tools to enjoy his school maths. One of the high points of this time was when he was heard to say “Oh the joy of numbers!”
So whenever I hear whizz kid educational authority spokesmen firmly toeing the party line on tutoring, I reach for my pen. Don’t tell me things would have got better, because they were heading for disaster. The only sadness is that schools can’t find some way of incorporating one to one extra tutorial time into the school schedule. Teaching the kids, not the subjects. Fat chance.
As for our son, he’s in his second year at Glasgow University. What is he studying? Maths. As I watch him happily working away at sheet after sheet of numbers, symbols, equations, I remember the wee boy who vowed that he would never take maths again, and wonder just how many other people have been lost to this fascinating, but largely unsung discpline. But of course, that’s a whole other issue, and probably not one for this blog!

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