Tutorfair helps students and parents find private tutors across the UK for in-person tuition. With over 1000 subjects on offer, their platform has over 6000 active tutors. We interviewed the company's founders, Andrew Ground and Mark Maclaine to learn more about their experiences of the tutoring industry.
The tutoring industry attracts tutors from a range of different backgrounds. Your own success story is one of the most interesting we’ve read online. How did you become involved in tutoring yourself? I believe you discovered your gift for tutoring while selling hoovers at Homebase?
MARK: When I was 16, I got a part-time job working in a local hardware/DIY store. As there wasn’t a lot of money to go around at home, it meant I could help out a little, but I also enjoyed it.
I joined the customer services team as I enjoyed talking to people and made some really great friends there. A few years into the job, a customer asked me which of the vacuum cleaners was best. Since I was studying Physics with Computer Science at university, my explanation might have been a little technical, but she didn’t seem to mind. She mentioned that she thought I might make a good tutor, and told me to contact the agency that she also worked for.
When I eventually plucked up the courage to go and see this agency, their first question to me was “Do you have a First from Oxbridge?” I had no idea what ‘Oxbridge’ was, and I hadn’t even finished my studies. When I said no, they politely asked me to leave. As I was walking out the door, the interviewer asked, “what did you want to tutor?” I said that Computing would probably be my best subject since I wasn’t too keen on Maths. They promptly asked me to sit down again, as they were apparently struggling to find a Computing tutor.
I was placed with a girl who’d sadly just lost her mother and was being home schooled. None of her other tutors had been able to get through to her and my attempts to be as ‘formal’ as possible weren’t working either. After some time I shared my own experiences of losing a parent and she was able to open up. Within a relatively short time she started doing better in all her subjects, and the family recommended me to other families.
Going forward, some of my students started asking me for help in other subjects, like Maths. I didn’t feel hugely confident in my mathematical ability, so I’d decline. Eventually I did agree to help a few, and they seemed to like my style of teaching more than the other tutors they’d been assigned. I don’t think I knew what I was doing really - I would just try to work out the answers with them. Perhaps they enjoyed feeling part of the process, or maybe they felt reassured that I was finding it hard too.
The agency were a little annoyed at first that I was ‘taking work’ away from their other tutors, many of whom were PHD Mathematicians, had written textbooks or were even university lecturers. However, since I would often take on the jobs no one else wanted, I eventually made a name for myself as being hardworking and reliable.
In time, I learnt a great deal more about education, neuroscience and started to really enjoy Maths. I started being placed on more high-profile jobs, and got to travel to some incredible places. I’ve also been very fortunate to make many great friends in the tutoring business, and as a result been involved in some incredible tutoring projects.
What, in your opinion, makes a good private tutor?
MARK: I guess my first assignment taught me that empathy is a hugely important skill for any private tutor to have. Your ability to connect with students lays the foundations of trust and puts them in a position where they can and want to learn.
From there, I would say integrity: being reliable. Doing what you say you will do, when you say you’re going to do it. It also means being able to tell parents and students things they may not want to hear. This isn’t always easy, and we all slip-up from time to time, but if people realise they can really rely you that is a huge plus. To a student your integrity also communicates to them that they are valued and supported.
All great tutors should have a deep understanding of how people learn. They don’t have to have a degree in neuroscience, but even a basic understanding of this (even if it is intuitive) is vital. They should be able to explain things simply and clearly, and should be constantly trying to refine their methods of explaining topics to become clearer and clearer.
Tutors also need to be creative, adapting their lessons to the individual needs of their students, and if possible making the content more engaging. Charisma is very helpful, as not everything our students will learn will be super fun, but there are always ways the content can be linked and cross-referenced to make things more digestible. Lastly I think the best tutors are those themselves who never stop learning. Students should see learning as something that continues for the rest of our lives, not just in school.
Having a tutor who is constantly pushing themselves, and sharing both their successes and failures with their students is a powerful mentor for that child to have. I’ve just been finishing off writing an independent training course for new tutors, and it’s been fun discussing what myself and my friends in the industry feel makes a great tutor.
Tutorfair’s startup story tells of its founder’s struggle to find tuition for his own children. Can you tell us a bit more about how the Tutorfair team came to be?
ANDREW: I wanted to find a tutor to help with an entrance exam. I found it surprisingly hard, even though I knew that lots of other parents were getting tutors. It seemed to me this was just the sort of information that should be available on a web site. I had just finished working at Lovefilm, where we had created lots of technology to let you find the perfect entertainment for you. I thought that I care alot more about the people who are educating my kids - why can’t I get this information online.
In the tutoring industry, Tutorfair is somewhat unique in its ethos in that it donates money from each lesson to charity and provides free tutoring to students from low-income backgrounds. Can you tell us a bit more about this ethos?
ANDREW: Tutoring is growing all over the world. That ought to be great news - people deciding to invest their own money in education. But most of the commentary just complains that the rich are buying advantage. The idea of Tutorfair was that a small donation in every lesson we sell lets us give tutoring to students who would not ordinarily benefit. So the more we grow, the more we will help disadvantaged students.
The thing we did not know when we started was how much that would strike a chord with tutors. We have been really impressed with how keen they are to volunteer. Thousands have volunteered and helped in 14 schools so far. The latest innovation for our Foundation is an on demand helpline for GCSE maths. This is a revolution for us because it means tutors can volunteer wherever they are and when they want to.
The Tutorfair Foundation was set up to provide free tutoring to those who need it most. Since 2013, the Foundation has helped nearly 8,000 students with the help of tutor volunteers. Can you tell us more about the work that the Foundation does?
ANDREW: The Foundation provides free tuition to students who would not ordinarily
benefit. We work with schools and other charities who work out who they think would benefit most from tuition. We advertise the opportunities to our community of 60,000 tutors and to universities. Everyone who volunteers then gets trained and vetted before they start, and we try to ensure they get feedback during and after the tutoring to maximise their personal learning.
Tutorfair currently has around 6,000 active tutors registered on the site. What does your tutor recruitment process involve?
ANDREW: We have a fully online process so that tutors can go live from anywhere at any time. They have to put up their profile, then go through a series of online identity checks. We also “verify” some of the tutors; we check their qualifications, take references and make sure they have an enhanced DBS check. For that they have to come and meet us, so it is not practical for everyone.
Tutorfair offers its tutors professional development opportunities through tutor training, volunteering, and observation. Can you tell us about the training opportunities at Tutorfair?
ANDREW: We have training courses for volunteers in primary and secondary schools, and we are now offering online training for the on demand helpline (this is just for GCSE maths at this stage). We have refined the programme based on feedback from volunteers and now virtually everyone completing the programme would recommend the experience to their friends.
As an experienced, high profile tutor, you’ve taught students all over the world. How do you think the tutoring industry differs elsewhere in the world from the UK?
MARK: Tutoring is becoming more prevalent in almost every country. There are people who try to say the growth of tutoring is somehow a reflection of failings in the UK education system. That is clearly not what is making it grow in all the other countries. I think the growth of tutoring is in fact driven by rising expectations of education.
Many of my clients have told me that they feel the future is increasingly uncertain, and by giving their children the gift of a quality education they are better preparing them for that. With increasing automation of jobs some even feel that traditional education may not be fully preparing them for what is to come. One father recently told me that after the crash of 2008, he feels that the best financial investment he can make for his children’s future is in their education.
Over the last decade, the tutoring industry has seen huge growth in the UK and worldwide. What do you think are the principal reasons for the private tuition boom?
ANDREW: The growth is driven by more demand as well as more supply. There is more demand because we are expecting more people to get to higher levels of education. Supply is up because students are working more now that they are paying for their degrees, and because the market now supports some full time tutors. It is now possible to make a professional living out of tutoring; it is not at all easy despite what you read about super-tutors, but there are people doing it and they get really good at it.
Have you noticed any market trends that may give us an insight into what the future could hold for private tutoring in the UK?
ANDREW: Tutors are often brought in to help with a specific issue, like mine I want to prepare for a specific exam. The good tutors think way beyond that and create habits of independent learning and self-management. This is really what most parents and schools want, so the market will need to evolve to deliver this quality. It is also quite obvious that clients are comfortable now with video calling, this will revolutionise the choices for clients and the options for tutors.
How do you see the industry developing over the next few years?
ANDREW: I think tutoring will continue to grow and there will be many new ways for people to find the right tutoring for them. I think we will see more use of tutoring by parents and schools to get the struggling students to catch back the class, to extend the able students and simply to enrich the curriculum. Learning is a very personal thing, and it is really quite hard to make sure that everyone in a class is actually learning to their potential all the time. This is a fundamental problem for which tutoring is a really effective solution. As tutoring becomes more normal and less of a hidden purchase I expect the market is likely to coalesce around a few winning business models.