Sun, Sea & SATs

Words by: Sophie Tweedale

The summer holiday checklist used to be so blissfully simple; a bulk-buy of Factor 50, valid passports, and a pile of books and gadgets to keep everyone quiet was all you had to worry about. If you threw in a handful of hastily grabbed Letts guides from the airport (to make the loungers look good or double-up as fans if not), it felt like you’d nailed it.

But anyone vaguely hoping this “should cover it” over the summer break is in for a shock. The trend of parents hiring a holiday tutor to join the family getaway is on the rise – and it’s changing the rules of the education battleground for all of us.

Currently, one in four parents of primary-aged children hires a tutor over the summer. The reasons are all too familiar; from the migraine-inducing thought of  getting into that prized school, acing an entrance exam aged seven, or the 11+, to panicking over the so-called ‘summer slide’ in academic ability come September.

An estimated 24 per cent of pupils have used a tutor and that figure rises to a whopping 40 per cent in London. Last year, I sheepishly joined these statistics. I shelled out for a year of  intense tutoring, followed by what should have been a memorable holiday to Dubai, which was instead spent neurotically cramming every study guide I could find into my son as he gazed mournfully at the waterslides. I didn’t need to (even the tutor said so), but like many parents, school-place FOMO and ‘what if’ paranoia kicked in, terrified in the knowledge we were competing for one of 125 places at a top grammar with the rest of  the (heavily tutored) county.

In a bid to keep up with the academic arms race, adding your own poolside professor to the holiday list has become the ultimate weapon. Wherever you’re going, however long you’re going for, there’s a surfeit of  companies offering tutors eager to hop on that 747 with you.

But joining the beach-teach set doesn’t come cheap. The new wave of summer super-tutors charges an average of £1,500 a week, not including flights and accommodation. Nathaniel McCullagh is Managing Director of Mayfair-based Simply Learning Tuition. It has a whopping 300 tutors on its books, some of whom charge an eye-twitching £3,000 per week to come and add some non-verbal reasoning to your annual getaway. But he describes Britain’s current tutor-fever as an “investment”.

“Yes, holiday tutoring is a big expense, but what is the net effect on the child?” he says. “It can be incredibly helpful with specific issues, such as preparing for an entrance exam or ironing out existing problems. Eight weeks is a really long time, so parents’ concerns are absolutely valid.

“The demand is definitely going up – we’re finding it’s a knock-on effect; people are hearing about it from friends doing it or via social media and want to book one themselves.

“School fees for some of  these kids can go up to £30,000 a year, so parents rightly see this as a drop in the ocean in the big scheme of  things; an investment.

“The reality is that supplementary learning is now a ‘thing’. Parents have been forced into seeking it because schools are just not able to dedicate the time and resources they once could. So we are facilitating the boom, but definitely not the ones fuelling it.

“Many parents worry about the phenomenon of summer learning loss, and if  you can stop that in its tracks, then why not?”

Holiday tutors will follow wherever you want, from yachting in Monaco to a yurt in Mali, offering an average of  two hours’ study a day (less for younger children) and educational outings in the afternoon. But it’s by no means a solve-all service only for the super-rich. One of  the fastest growth areas for the industry is the ‘average’ middle-class parent, vying for a place in the selective state sector.

Increasingly common are requests from families choosing to staycation – but with a tutor – forgoing an exotic break, instead spending their holiday on the Cornish coast or Norfolk Broads. Nathaniel adds: “We are seeing massive growth in this area because the alternatives are so bleak. Many people either can’t afford to go private or don’t agree with the ethics of it, so they turn to us to help win the educational arms race, which sadly is what it has become.

“The reality is not everyone can get a house in a catchment area, or face being in an underperforming school, so using the summer like this is a one-off way of getting around that.

“We are looking at the future. Parents are going to have to take more of an active role in their children’s education because bad schools are failing and good schools are even more competitive than ever. Parents are starting to take ownership of their children’s education.”

The general debate around holiday homework has raged for years, dividing teachers and parents alike. Just last month, Tim Hands, headmaster of  prestigious Winchester College, said holiday homework should be banned, and that holidays should be about “plenty of  rest”. Previously, Ben Thomas, head of Thomas’s Battersea had called tutoring “a hideous concept”, blasting it for being “unregulated” and driven by a fear of “missing out”.

Yet research from many sources, such as the Sutton Trust, points out that summer learning loss is a real thing, with evidence showing pupils can regress by a few months after the holidays.

The conflict of opinion is enough to make any parent want to bury their head firmly in the Spanish sand.

Lucy Baldwin, a 35-year-old web designer from Balham, is hiring a private tutor this summer on a three-week break to  the  Dordogne  for  her  five-year  old  son  starting reception in September, and his brother, preparing for the seven-plus entrance exam. She admits she’d love them to have an “Enid Blyton” summer, but is worried they’ll fall behind their peers.

She says: “No one wants to holiday hothouse their children – it’s time-consuming and a drain on finances. I also find myself unable to talk about it to friends as there’s a stigma. But I feel like we have no choice.

“Schools, especially in our area of South London, have upped their game when it comes to grades and admissions. We sacrificed plenty of material things last year to afford the extra help and the holidays seem like a natural time to do it.”

Professor Samantha Twiselton, Director of the Sheffield Institute of Education, believes strongly, however, that kids should be allowed to be kids during the holidays, and that pressuring them to work can backfire badly on parents.

She says: “I find this a worrying trend for a number of reasons. Holidays should be a precious opportunity for families to spend quality time with each other.

“It’s often the only time to reinforce crucial parental and sibling relationships – something children need to grow into fulfilled and well-balanced adults. They also help broaden children’s understanding of the world – there simply is a lot more to life than cramming.

“If  this time is used instead to obsess about formal educational attainment, not only does this rob our children of  a childhood, it risks adding stress to what is often the only downtime kids get.

“Once we start going down this path, where does it end? Not everyone can afford it, so it will simply increase the growing divide in education.”

The recent national decision to abandon plans for new grammar schools is likely to only up the frenzy in an already competitive system.

As the educational battlefront is played out on our beaches, the summer super-tutor debate will continue to rage, and like it or not, school’s definitely no longer out for summer.