Read our Q&A with the founder of Simply Learning Tuition, Nathaniel McCullagh
Nathaniel McCullagh is a Managing Director with an incredible grasp on ‘the bigger picture’ of private tuition. It’s not often that the word ‘thought leader’ is used within the context of tutoring but the term is certainly apt to describe the approach of Simply Learning Tuition’s founder towards education. So, when Nathaniel agreed to a Q&A with The Tutor Website, we knew that an inspiring dialogue would follow.
Can you tell us how you got started in the private tutoring industry? What was your motivation to form Simply Learning Tuition?
When I graduated from Durham University, I was working as an Assistant Director on film sets but there were long breaks in the contracts. A friend worked for a tuition agency and told me I should join. The agency gave me some incredible jobs, ranging from pro-bono work to Eton Common Entrance preparation on yachts and jets. I met some wonderful children and parents and quickly realized that tutoring was an excellent way to earn a good living, doing something that was incredibly helpful and at times, rather exciting.
The motivation to set up Simply Learning Tuition came from the fact that I wanted to set up an agency with exceptional standards.
Your agency comes highly recommended by The Good Schools Guide. What do you think sets Simply Learning apart from other agencies?
There are lots of good agencies in London. With Simply Learning Tuition, I think parents like our high level of service and our down to earth and efficient approach. Tutors like the way we respect them and the fact that we get them a lot of work. This is all summed up in our ethos, ‘to work with honesty and integrity’.
Simply Learning is somewhat unique in that it also offers international tutoring for students relocating to the UK or elsewhere worldwide. Can you tell us a bit more about this service?
We have always provided tutors overseas on long-term residential placements. These postings were usually for a specific academic subject or level. However, after spending several months researching education in China and the United States (two very different education extremes) last year and speaking with UK Head Teachers and advisors from Pearson Education, we concluded that children coming from overseas need to develop a range of social, cultural, academic and language skills to thrive at a UK school.
We have developed a range of bespoke services for our international clients that are best summarized by the Boarding School Plus and University Fast Track services. Depending on the child’s needs we introduce a tutor for either a few days, weeks or longer to help prepare the child for every facet of school life that we can think of; including real English used at schools and universities, time spent with alumni, interviews with headmasters, study skills, introductions to English culture and a mentor who is always at the end of the phone to mediate between teachers and distant parents. We’ve developed this with help from some of the top boarding schools in the UK, so we think it has real value to children.
Looking at the results statistics you publish on your site, it’s clear that Simply Learning has a very impressive success rate. You also have some great testimonials that show that grades aren’t the only way to judge success. What other effects have you seen private tutoring have on students?
We are only as good as the tutors we choose to work with. The key to any tutors’ success is their ability to instill confidence in a child. Children can often progress in leaps and bounds – learning difficulties can be worked with, skill sets can be harnessed and directions changed. A good tutor starts the child on their own journey of discovery – they just need to make learning something that is fun and achievable – rather than daunting and associated with constant disappointment. A good tutor is like an older brother or sister, uncle or aunt. Like the best teachers, they don’t hide behind a desk but muck in and add their own passion, success and hardship experiences to help the child develop.
All your tutors are highly qualified and have first-class academic backgrounds. Can you tell us what you think makes a top tier tutor?
Empathy is really important. The best tutors never make a child feel stupid but conversely, they never let them pull the wool over the tutor’s eyes. They have a genuine understanding of the subject (which many, ‘academics’ don’t actually have – they’re just good at recall and passing exams) and the ability to communicate this on a child’s level.
You’re a big advocate of promoting education not only in the UK but around the world and you work closely with the Zimbabwe Rural Schools Development Programme. Can you tell us a bit more about this programme?
This is an incredible programme that is actually making a difference to hundreds of children in Africa. Donations from the UK go to build and repair schools in the deepest rural areas. They pay for local teachers to be trained and supported. They supply books and other educational resources and also forge links with other charities and government organisations to help fund the schools.
Simply Learning supports Shivia, a UK charity that runs social enterprises to help the poorest communities out of poverty. From an education perspective, how do you think the tutoring industry can help close the education gap?
Social mobility is extremely challenging for tutors. If parents can afford a tutor, and the tutor is effective, their child will have an increased chance of getting to a ‘good school’. This should help them secure a place at a, ‘good university’. In theory they can then get a ‘great job’. But in reality, top jobs demand skills that aren’t always taught in the classroom; self-belief, a strong network, the right, ‘manner’, a strong world vision. The student also needs to have the means to support themselves through University and the early post-university working years.
If parents can afford it, tutoring can certainly enhance social mobility. However, it costs a lot to get a world-leading educator delivered to your door. Most of the tutors we work with have asked about voluntary work but the simple economics dictate that this will always be challenging. Instead, we believe in the paradigm of educationalists like Sudha Mitra – give the children the tools and let them teach themselves. So for example, a series of excellent, detailed videos explaining how to learn, how not to be scared by work, how to plan.
The Khan academy is great and we support their approach that children and their parents should become their own teachers. In a way this is what tutors are doing. They have the luxury of one to one time with the child, teaching them how to learn for themselves. For parents, we also provide monthly newsletters through our Passport for Life Service, which contain lots of information about new trends in education and give ideas for helping your child to learn.
If tutors want to help increase social mobility, they need to share their greatness; write about their pedagogies, offer groups classes, campaign to politicians to make schools better and to parents to support their children more.
Your agency seems to value collaborative working with schools, charities and other organisations. In an industry that can sometimes feel a bit fragmented, how important do you think collaboration is between tutoring organisations?
In the press, it is often suggested that schools and tutors don’t sit well together. This is a shame as it’s always in the child’s best interest that all parties talk to one another. Whilst we never insist, we always recommend that the parent, teacher and tutor talk. Often we will be called in as consultants to help out between parties – particularly if parent are overseas. You absolutely can’t teach a child one way if they are working in a completely different way at school – you’ll just confuse them! When helping them prepare for an interview you need to know what the school is looking for (we do) but you need to let the child find it in themselves – you must never spoon feed.
We believe really strongly in building the whole child and see professionally delivered academic tuition as an essential component to this. Schools are often tied in knots with curriculum whilst tutors can take a wider perspective and encourage students to learn for the 21st century.
The 21st Century Skills Movement is a phenomenon being embraced by schools, universities and governments around the world. Businesses are calling for these skills in graduates and school leavers. Universities claim they improve academic performance. But why is this? What are these 21st century skills? And how can children benefit from them?
As I mentioned previously, our Passport for Life Service offers our clients a series of presentations covering each of these questions, looking at how they can be applied at home, through tutors and in school. These presentations focus on resilience, collaboration, meta-cognition (learning to learn), communication, creativity and critical thinking.
The tutoring industry has seen some big developments recently with the formation of The Tutor’s Association and the National Tutoring Conference. What do you think the future holds for the private tutoring industry?
The Tutors Association is a solid attempt to bring together a disparate group of individuals and represent them fairly and without overt commercial exploitation. Tutoring is not yet a profession and I don’t believe that it can become one until all tutors are forced to take exams and receive qualifications. I sit on a panel for CPD within the Tutors Association and can see how hard this will be to implement – but it can happen, if we get the content right and if the tutors want it to.
There needs to be more accountability to parents in terms of what tutors and agencies are and are not able to do contractually and legally. The future of the industry is bright – but ineffective, irresponsible tutors need to be weeded out. Agencies will need to maintain a global outlook.
I think there will always be a place for freelance tutors but parents are demanding higher levels of training, ability and security. We think the best way forward is to have a mixture of fully employed tutors, whom we train and who work exclusively for us and self-employed freelancers whom we simply represent. Parents pay for the best and we need to be able to provide this in a bespoke way, so they choose the tutor they want. This may be a self-employed expert tutor, or a full time, agency employed tutor. Agencies who want to provide the best service to their clients need to be able to offer both.