Nothing gets a middle-class mother hyperventilating like the seemingly simple question: ‘Have you hired a tutor?’ Once the preserve of the children of millionaires and child stars, The Good Schools Guide estimates that one-quarter of all children are now tutored individually at some point in their school career.

‘Our business has quintupled over the past five years,’ says Mylène Curtis, who runs Fleet Tutors, a company that provides tutors nationally for almost every subject and age. ‘The majority of parents who come to us earn an above-average income, but there are many exceptions-tutors are no longer only for the rich.’

Who needs a tutor?

Usually, a tutor is the means to an end-a weapon to help meet a specific, short-term goal, such as passing the 11+, catching up on work missed through illness, or improving a mark on a particularly devilish GCSE paper. For affluent parents, a tutor can be just one more weapon in the academic arms race. Independent school? Tick. Revision courses? Tick. Language exchange? Tick. Private tutor? Tick.

For the less well-off, hiring a tutor in a critical subject at a key time can deliver independent-school-quality GCSEs at a knockdown price. Parents who, until the recession, might have forked out for a private school, now find that a comprehensive education propped up by private tuition,
à la Euan Blair, is the next best thing.

Many parents who would be happy to help their children themselves say their kids res-pond better to an external authority figure. Others cite long hours at work as a reason why they can’t muck in and coach their children. Often, pressure comes from the child.

‘I had no intention of using a tutor,’ says Margie Samuelson, whose daughter sat the entrance test for a Dorset grammar school, ‘but, once my daughter found out that the other kids in her class were using tutors, she wanted one. The chap I hired told me after a few sessions that I was wasting my money-she would do fine on the test-but I kept him on to boost her confidence.’

Children with special education needs can particularly benefit from the one-to-one attention a tutor provides. ‘When your child has learning issues, you get so hysterical you’ll try anything you think might help,’ London mother Megan Glover told me. ‘We tried helping our son ourselves, but it taxed our patience to a degree that we just couldn’t cope. The tutor we eventually found-after some dead ends-made a big difference.’

Is it fair?

A poll commissioned by the BBC last year found that half of children at grammar schools were sent to private tutors to pass the entrance test (another 30% were coached by their parents). Research by Prof Brendan Bunting, a psychologist at Ulster University, has found that pupils coached for nine months improved their 11+ scores by 40%. Is it fair, he asks, that parents who can afford extra help can ‘buy’ a place at a grammar school?

Experts such as Prof Bunting may be concerned, but schools don’t seem overly troubled. If they were, tests could be written that were less easily swotted for and formats could be changed regularly. Independent Bedford School outwitted tutors two years ago by doing just that: it introduced an ‘uncoachable’ test.

The school’s computer-based scholarship exam no papers-was designed by Durham University and assesses verbal and non-verbal ability and mathematical thinking. The idea is to put all boys sitting the exam-from whatever background on a level playing field.  

Is it a fad?

‘The increase in tutoring is a sad reflection of heightened anxiety, competition and expectations,’ says Susan West, headmistress of St Christopher’s School, a top girls’ prep in Hampstead. ‘There’s a domino effect: parents feel if so-and-so’s doing it, they’ve got to do it. It’s hard on children, having all this extra study after their school work.’

However, some parents still scoff at the idea of a tutor, especially for things such as school entrance exams. Why bother, when sample tests can be bought from WH Smith and over the internet? Getting your child to slave through them under timed conditions can achieve as much, they say, as shelling out for a tutor to do essentially the same thing.

Katherine Hamlyn, a private tutor and author of 11+ English: A Parent’s Toolkit, says ‘It can be fun for parents and children to work together towards an agreed goal. Parents often find themselves learning, too, and it’s much more satisfying than merely paying out money to someone who doesn’t know your child at all.’ Her book gives parents ideas for coaching their own children through grammar and private school entrance tests.

Tutoring spreads like wildfire. And it can take nerves of steel to buck the trend. But, as the recession kicks in, that’s exactly what some parents may have to do. Many of you will be relieved to hear that tutoring agencies are reporting that business has ‘quietened’ since November of last year.

Janette Wallis is an editor of ‘The Good Schools Guide’; www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk

How do you find a tutor?

Word of mouth is always best. However, a good tutor, especially in English or maths, is a local treasure, their name guarded jealously by parents who may not wish to share with other children the advantages they are buying for their own. Ask parents of children slightly older than yours, who know the ropes and may be keen to show off their knowledge.

The Good Schools Guide has a list of recommended tutors and tutoring firms