When I heard the news that children as young as two are being signed up for elocution tutorials in order to safeguard their (eventual) seamless entry into prep school, public school, Oxbridge and the upper echelons of business, the judiciary and finance, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
So I took the third, pushy parent option instead: I immediately booked a session with Simply Learning Tuition for my younger daughter. If the Received Pronunciators are going to inherit the earth, I see no reason why Tabitha, aged four, shouldn’t join them.
A great many of Simply Learning’s wealthy foreign clients employ bilingual nannies and have a range of international staff looking after their offspring. As a result, their children speak English, but with a Euro-twang that sets them apart from the ancient regime, who were reared with top-notch Mary Poppins vowels and the clipped speech patterns of the ruling classes.
My children are no different (albeit at a slightly more Low Net Worth Individual level). Tabitha has had a marvellous nanny from Eastern Europe and a fabulous child-minder from the Indian subcontinent. So if the clang of a dropped aitch jeopardises her chance of mingling with the global elite, then I suppose the earlier we start the better.
“Parents don’t ask us specifically just to come in and give their three-year-old child cut glass vowels,” insists Nathaniel McCullagh, founder of Simply Learning Tuition, which supplies elocution and other tutors to the rich and famous. “We would dismiss that as ridiculous. But teaching correct pronunciation does form part of what we do, and, for older children, we do smooth the rough edges when we’re working on confidence-building or presentational skills, to give a more upper middle-class accent.
“It’s not a case of ordering teenagers to talk ‘properly’, more that our tutors are young and cool and speak very nicely, so the kids respect them and instinctively want to copy them.”
When our tutor, psychology graduate Erin Jarvis, 26, arrives on the doorstep, things get off to an ideal start as Tabitha gives her a bone-crunching hug and asks her to stay for supper. I’m glad my husband is out, as Erin is so pretty and blonde and leggy I fear he might have done the same. But Erin’s professionalism is apparent from the get-go and her easy-going rapport with my pint-size Eliza Doolittle soon sees them drawing flowers and naming letters and generally chit-chatting.
I cringe when Erin asks: “What is the first number we use when we count?” and Tabitha replies “T”. But I like to think she redeems herself when I pop my head over the sofa to inquire whether she’s been talking about poo-poo-heads and she responds with a withering: “No mummy, that’s scatological.”
After a spot of phonics comes some lovely role-playing, where Erin is the canteen lady doling out spaghetti and Tabitha is the diner holding her plate aloft. They are having terrific fun, and when Tabitha says she “hided” something, Erin doesn’t bark: “Hid! It’s hid! Repeat after me child, hid!”, like a stressed parent, but gently models the correct word back to her.
In truth, she isn’t doing anything I couldn’t do myself – except that I rarely make the time (though I might if I were getting a healthy cut from the £58 an hour fees). Tutoring agencies report that the fastest growing market isn’t secondary level, but at key stages 1 and 2, so that children don’t fall behind.
But is any sort of tutoring at such an early age justifiable? Shouldn’t a four-year-old just be left to develop at her own pace? (I thought I was a cat and ate my lunch on all-fours until the age of five and I turned out fine.)
The headmaster of a leading prep school has condemned private tutoring, particularly for young children, as “a hideous concept”. Ben Thomas, headmaster of Thomas’s, Battersea, has decried the practice of tutoring children for school admissions because it robs them of their childhood and masks the child’s innate abilities.
Then again, given that he runs this highly selective establishment, one of four Thomas’s Day Schools, which were founded by his parents, he’s presumably never had to jostle with the pointy-elbowed hoi polloi for a place. And in a market economy where some parents are paying for tutors, it’s only human nature for others to follow suit, however reluctantly, or secretly.
By way of bringing the subject out in the open, Thomas is to host a debate for parents and teachers under the motion, “This house believes that tutoring undermines education”. His concerns are echoed by the Girls’ Schools Association, where heads are becoming so frustrated that Clarissa Farr, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School, has asked parents to declare what tutoring children have had.
But surely a little judicious elocution with a side order of numeracy, critical thinking and imaginary pasta doesn’t really count? Does it? “Our feeling is that having really young children tutored is just a waste of money,” says Janette Wallis of education bible The Good Schools Guide.
“Schools don’t expect anything of a three or four-year-old that any parent couldn’t teach with a little input – shaking hands, looking grown-ups in the eye and so on. A tutor isn’t necessary for that. As far as accents go, children’s speech is still developing and dwelling on pronunciation will only serve to make them self-conscious when they speak.”
Research by London University’s Institute of Education has revealed that one in four families in Britain have hired a tutor. Anecdotal evidence suggests that half of the children in London have been tutored, and that in some schools, 100 per cent of children preparing for public examinations are tutored the traditional way. But we are shuffling amateurs compared with some nations. In Hong Kong, exam pressure has created a breed of celebrity “tutor kings” and “tutor queens”, who feature in posters in shopping centres and on buses. Young, glamorous and dressed in designer clothes, they are treated like pop stars.
The truth is that there will always be demand for bright young things to tutor bright young children who thrive on one-to-one contact. After all, there is no substitute for a real life person, whose job it is to draw a rainbow and carefully sound out words and serve pretend spaghetti, a person traditionally known as “Mummy”.
For the full article by Judith Woods at The Telegraph, published on the 30th of April, please click here.