Every day on my way to work, I walk past an LED ad.
“Look him in the eyes,” it reads, “and tell him you can’t really work from home.” The image – a man staring out at passers-by lifelessly, a ventilator strapped to his face – has its desired effect: it sends me into an internal panic every time I see it.
I work as a private tutor, helping children between the ages of 7 and 18 with their schoolwork, on a one-to-one basis. It’s obviously entirely possible for me to complete this work online – after all, that’s how the majority of children have been attending school for the best part of the past year – but over the last few months I’ve been struck by the amount of parents begging me to commute across London to their houses to work with their kids in person.
It’s an issue, because morally, I don’t feel good about my work. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that coronavirus will cost today’s children £350 billion in lifetime lost earnings, I don’t think it’s fair that the burden of this will be felt more keenly by some than others: primarily by those who are poor, BAME, and disabled.
And yet it’s this system that sustains me. Tutoring became my primary source of income when I lost my job at a cinema at the start of the pandemic last year. As a recent graduate applying for work in the middle of a hiring crisis, tuition seemed like the only sustainable way to stay afloat.
As a recent graduate applying for work in the middle of a hiring crisis, tuition seemed like the only sustainable way to stay afloat.
At the same time, I’m keenly aware that I’m now part of a system which is creating a monumental divide between rich and poor students, heightened by the ongoing pandemic. According to the Sutton Trust, teachers at the most deprived state schools report that 63% of work given into them is of a lower standard than before. Low-income students generally have less access to time, technology and parental support to stay up-to-date with classwork during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of GCSE students have been unable to get help from family members with questions about schoolwork.
In contrast, every day I travel across London to take wealthier students through exactly what needs to be done to stay ahead of the class. I correct GCSE work which will end up being assessed as part of a coursework exam, and coach 11-year-olds through the profound psychological effects of being otherwise without company or direction for the best part of a year. So when I’m on the tube, staring at the man in the advert in the eyes, I’m thinking about how I’m part of the reason the gap between rich and poor students has grown by 46% in the past year, and treating this job as essential.
When you’re inside the houses of the super-rich, it is immediately obvious that they are living in a different world. In many cases, I am one of several staffed workers among maids, cooks, and childcarers. In many homes I visit, there is a safe-entry system: I am invited inside, am directed to wash my hands, and given an individual hand towel, which is then chucked into a basket, like some upscale restaurant. A maid, probably paid significantly less than me, is then tasked with the job of washing the towels. This supposedly minimises the risk to the family of our entering and leaving, although surely the safest thing for everyone would be if none of us were there at all.
I am often not the only tutor in the house. I’m walking through marbled hallways, overhearing Spanish lessons, maths lessons, geography lessons with various siblings. There’s a sea of tutors — all jobless, 20-something graduates — the world’s smallest and most domestic private school. When parents ask me if I know anyone who could help their Year 9 with religious studies, I feel like a character in Parasite, wondering which of my out-of-work friends with the most relevant skills I should hit up.
As a tutor, I am both an outside observer into the lives of the super rich, whilst simultaneously being enveloped inside them. Before Christmas, I get a call from my agency: “there’s a family who wants you to spend the next lockdown with them in Bali,” I am told. “Don’t worry about visas or the border, they have a private jet.”
There’s something sick about knowing that I will never truly see the real impact of my work on the poorest, precisely because I provide a service which is exclusive by design.
In me, parents have bought access to serious academic and social advantage. Working alongside children, it’s clear to me that on a micro-level, I’m just helping innocent people to cope with the immense change in their lives over the past year. My presence in their lives structures their days and keeps them occupied.
But on a larger scale, there’s something sick about knowing that I will never truly see the real impact of my work on the poorest, precisely because I provide a service which is exclusive by design. Although the government has now set up a National Tutoring Programme for disadvantaged students which supposedly recognises the fact that some people have had disproportionate, private access to tutors, the programme has been outsourced to tuition companies, and many head teachers complain that it has been chaotically and shoddily implemented in schools.
As students settle back into the routine of attending school there’s a strange dissonance in feeling relieved that perhaps my complicity in further perpetuating this country’s private education problem is coming to a halt, and knowing that I still depend on this work to pay my rent. I still don’t have another job, despite my best efforts.
It’s disturbing knowing that a system that my political and moral commitments scream against has become my bread and butter, the ramifications of which will always be somewhat invisible to me, but keenly felt by others, for years to come.
Leila Sackur is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @baby_____lei
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