“Accomplished dressage and hunter-jumper rider…developing a sense of anxiety,” reads one recent job posting on Oxford-based Tutors International, one of the most prestigious tutoring agencies.
“Reasonably able young man…[with] an occasional issue with some executive functioning skills and can be prone to emotional outbursts when he is upset about something.”
Challenging twins: “The boy is a vegetarian who will only eat dry, crunchy textures, and so exists on a diet of nuts, dried fruit, and crunchy vegetables such as celery and peppers.… parents have aspirations for them to both attend top universities or colleges such as MIT, Harvard, or Oxbridge, but already the twins are behind their current U.S. grade level (1).”
Skeptics may wonder if such needs can be met. More to the point, while bespoke tutoring may help a student get good grades and pass the right tests, can it actually yield a person you’d want to know? The kind of person who can power through unpleasant circumstances, work well with others, roll with it? The results, not surprisingly, are varied and messy. On the one hand, delving into this world reveals many stories of kids like Henry, whose young lives turned around thanks to full-time one-on-one instruction at home. On the other hand, there are myriad variables that can cause the whole experiment to break down, ending either in mild disaster or status quo dysfunction.
Even experts in the field don’t quite agree on what should be the ultimate role of bespoke tutoring in modern society. Adam Caller, who 20 years ago founded Tutors International, is a purist about such robust one-on-one instruction outside of school. He believes traditional curriculum may no longer be relevant in a rapidly changing world. “We could not be heading in a more inappropriate direction for educating the next generation,” says Caller. Parents, he says, are posing the question, “If we want our children to become leaders of tomorrow, then what does their education need to look like that’s different? What skills will they need to have in order to be leaders in a society where artificial intelligence will be doing a lot of things that we currently take for granted? Do they need to use a pen? Probably not. Do they need to learn to be able to talk to computers? Probably yes. Do they need to have social integration into social groups like we consider to be important today? Probably not.” He takes the needs of wealthy individuals very seriously, even offering sea tutoring for clients who spend weeks at a time on their yachts.
Nathaniel McCullagh, founder of another high-end U.K.–based agency, Simply Learning Tuition, views bespoke tutoring more as a stopgap to target a very specific problem, before the child can rejoin the herd. “If a child can go to school and be bumped around with 30 other kids in a classroom and then go home and get the parental support they need, that’s the best,” he says. “Friends, sports, competition, challenge, failure, resilience-building. They need all that stuff and they get it far better at school than at home with a tutor.” While homeschool curricula may be tailored to the particular student’s needs, certain official standards must be met. (In the U.K., many universities require homeschool students to pass their GCSE and A-level exams just like regular students. In the U.S., homeschool requirements vary from state to state.)
Whatever the particulars, all parental clients, and especially—the “very high net worth individuals”—seek the cream of the crop; these instructors are sometimes called “supertutors.” The parents tend to consider Oxford or Cambridge the golden ticket, and will pay as much as $160,000 per year. “The tutor should be an interesting and erudite individual, open-minded, well-traveled, and well-versed in pedagogic theory. He or she will not only be an excellent educator, but also a good role model: educated and polished, with excellent manners and personal values,” is how a job listing on Tutors International puts it. For other families, it would be “advantageous” if a tutor is also a keen sportsman or sportswoman; if the tutor could also teach foreign language to members of the household staff; if the tutor could also assist the mother in logistics of relocating and furnishing multiple homes; if the tutor plays the flute; if the tutor truly grasps what it means to appreciate “quality of life.” It goes without saying that the tutor should not gawk at the family Picassos.