Why hire a tutor for your child? This question would seem to have an obvious answer: to improve their academic performance, thereby helping them on their way to a happy and successful adult life. Who wouldn͛t want to ensure this for their child? But there are other options available to parents who want to help their children academically. They can encourage them to read at home or to go to afterschool homework clubs. They might be able to pay for their child to go to a private school or encourage them to apply for a scholarship.

So the answer to the question of why to hire a tutor isn͛t quite as obvious as it first seems. In fact, to answer it the question has to be rephrased: what is that home tuition can provide, which no other form of schooling can? The answer is, a one-to-one conversation. When somebody speaks to you face to face, you feel an obligation to listen to them, and answer them. In fact, the chances are that you don͛t even register this obligation. It just feels natural to give your interlocutor the courtesy of a reply. A conversation is thus a very different kind of interaction to a lesson in a classroom, in which only the teacher is obligated to speak. Of course, the teacher can oblige pupils to speak by asking them questions, but unless they want to make individual pupils uncomfortable by putting them on the spot, he or she can only direct questions at the class in general. This isn͛t a particularly good way of encouraging kids to think for themselves. Although it gives the confident kids a chance to show how clever they are, it also allows the shyer and less showy pupils not to come up with an answer.

This may seem to be leading towards the argument that one-to-one tuition is worthwhile for the rather dubious reason that it forces pupils into speaking. But this is not at all the experience of being a pupil in a tutorial. It is the job of a tutor to create a space in which a pupil can feel entirely comfortable in contributing his or her opinion. This is something no pupil surrounded by classmates can ever feel; no matter how friendly the teacher, putting up your hand in class always entails the risk of looking silly or stupid in front of your friends. Private tuition eliminates this risk. And, by giving them the opportunity to be surprised by the nuance of their own ideas, it allows them to return to the classroom with more confidence.

Not only is a one-to-one tutorial a more comfortable environment in which to learn, it is also a more productive one. In a tutorial, a tutor can calibrate the discussion precisely to the level of the pupil͛s knowledge of a subject, steadily bringing them to the very edge of their understanding of it. I think that no tutorial is complete without at least one question to which the pupil answers ͚I don͛t know͛. One of the hardest but most necessary tasks a tutor has is that of making a pupil realize that it͛s okay not to answer straight away. Often the impulse of nervous pupils when they realize they don͛t know an answer is to say the first thing which comes into their heads. The job a tutor is to curb this impulse, and to make the pupil realize that it is much more productive to acknowledge that a question is difficult and to take as long as is necessary to think it over.

Of course, for many parents, and especially those with children in their late teens, the abstract goal of improving their prospects actually centers getting them into Oxbridge. The main reason why Oxford and Cambridge top the leader boards, and the reason why it is meaningful to group them together under one heading, is that in both universities, students are taught in exactly the way I have been describing. They are given tutorials either individually or in pairs, in which they are asked questions of increasing complexity, to the point that they have to pause for thought. It is in these pauses that students what and how they think. If I could give only one reason why hiring a tutor for your child is a sensible thing to do, it would be that doing so exposes them to the kind of education they would receive in the country͛s top educational establishments, before they even apply to them. This is a sure way to increase the chance of them being accepted into these universities.