​To tutor or not to tutor, that is the 11-plus question

ON MONDAY, hundreds of thousands of children will find out whether they have a place at their chosen secondary school. For some this will be at a school that required them to sit the 11-plus or Common Entrance Exam.

How did they get there? Increasing numbers will have had a private tutor. 1 in 4 families used a tutor last year (this rises to 2 in 4 in London) according to a recent report, and the numbers for 11-plus tuition is estimated to be much higher. Tutoring as a profession has exploded. The Tutors Association says that at least 1 million people now earn money from tutoring in the UK, numbers that outrank those of full-time nurses, solicitors and – yes – even school teachers. Everybody, it would seem, is doing it.


But how do you decide if hiring a tutor is the right step for your child and, if it is, how do you go about finding a tutor when there are literally a million options out there?

Parents first. “I was in principle against hiring a tutor but in our area it’s a necessity not an option,” says Celia Roberts, whose son, Michael, gained a place at a hotly contested grammar school in Buckinghamshire last September. “There were over 2000 applicants for just under 200 places.

“Part of the entrance exam involved verbal reasoning, which they didn't teach at his primary school, and some of the maths was not on the curriculum until the term after the test. Once we made the choice to apply, it would have been totally unfair not to prepare him properly. Cruel even.”

Cruel? So far, so emotive. For parents like Celia, tutoring (or the 't' word as its known in playgrounds across the land; utter it with caution if you are unsure which 'side' your School Run friends are on) hits a Why-Wouldn't-You? nerve.

Not so for Lucas' mother, Eloise. Lucas is now in his second year at a fee-paying school in Bristol. His parents made the decision not to tutor in advance of the entrance exam. Eloise explains: “I think children should only go to a school if they are genuinely bright enough to cope once they get in. I've heard some schools are setting tutor-proof exams for this reason. I spoke to Lucas’ primary teacher who said he was in the top 25% for all subjects. We felt he would be fine and tutoring would only add unnecessary pressure.”

So not even a teensy bit of non-verbal reasoning over his cornflakes before the exam? “Yes, of course. It’s not a case of tutoring or nothing. There is a third way. We went to WHSmiths and bought practice papers. The Bond 11 Plus series is excellent. My friend’s daughter went to an expensive Prep school and they used these books. A light-hearted approach worked for Lucas. Plenty of sleep and good food was equally important."


While making the decision to hire a tutor can often be an emotional one, logic and practicalities have to kick in quickly once the decision is made. It’s not uncommon to start 11-plus tutoring a year in advance. As most schools hold exams in January, this means booking a tutor to start in Year 5.

It's a good idea to start financial planning even earlier. Fifty or so weeks of tutoring at £20 a pop (this can rise to £50+ in London) needs to be factored in to your family’s budget. You may also need to be quick off the blocks to bag the best tutor. In some UK grammar school hot spots, it is reported that there are eight-year waiting lists for top tutors, and it's the tutors who ask families for references, not the other way around.


Online tutoring is an increasingly popular choice and not just in areas where accessing a tutor is tricky due to location or competition. Maths Doctor regularly comes out top based on parental feedback and, as the name suggests, is reassuringly scientific in its approach to matching pupils with their "perfect tutor". “Instead of relying on the unknown expertise of a local tutor, online tuition allows your child to be matched with a tutor whose teaching style is most closely aligned to their learning needs," says Maths Doctor’s Rahim Hirji.

Online tutoring sites can pair pupils very accurately with tutors based on ability, academic speciality (e.g. 11-Plus, GCSE or A-level), subject and experience. They even have the educational equivalent of a GSOH tick box to match personalities. This can be vital when it’s confidence not ability that is the key thing holding your child back. The tutoring itself is also done online which reduces the need for an additional after-school journey or commitment to a tutor visiting your home.


Tutorfair not only offers one-to-one tuition but also an innovative "one for one" programme too. For every student who pays for tuition, Tutorfair provides free tutoring for a child who can't. Their "child for child" promise ensures that tuition is not just for "the privileged few" and replaces the X-Factor (X for eXpensive) with the Feel Good Factor. It's helicopter parenting with a conscience; the educational equivalent of off-setting your (naughty) air miles. Tutorfair also offers students a video interview with tutors which they say helps children feel "on board" with the decision and, in turn, increases the chances of the tutoring going well. So it really is all good. The service is limited to London and the South East at present but Tutorfair is ambitious as it is ethical and there are plans to roll out the scheme across the UK.


Whether you go the popular ‘my teacher is an app’ route or opt for the former headmistress down the road who serves hot chocolate with her practice papers ('Lots of omega-3 fatty acids in full fat milk, don't you know'), the following tips will help.


  1. Your child's teacher will be a good starting point if you are considering tutoring. Does your child stand a good chance of passing the test you want to tutor them for? Are there any additional free resources available at school that you could try in advance of tutoring? Booking an initial assessment with a tutor will also help you decide. An experienced tutor will always be able to advise whether your child stands a strong chance of progressing to the specified goal.
  2. Don’t think that hiring a tutor, online or locally, is 'job done'. Tutors give homework – sometimes as many as four or five pieces a week on top of your child’s usual homework from school – so it is more than an hour-a-week commitment.
  3. Get references and recommendations. A tutor may look good on paper but a great learning relationship will be as important as the information you want your child to learn.
  4. The 11-plus system can vary across the country and you need to ensure you have the right tutor and materials for the schools in your area. Eleven Plus Exams has a great section on Regions as well as lots of 11-plus specific advice. It also has a busy Forum, an excellent place to get local knowledge from parents.
  5. If you are looking beyond the 11-plus to tutoring for GSCE or A-levels the same rules apply. If you are struggling to get advice and recommendations from families locally, go online and use School Guide’s Have Your Say section to put questions to experienced parents on specific school pages. Truth is, you probably can’t do too much homework when you are looking at some of the most important homework of your child’s life.