Guess what parents end up discussing in the playground on their child's first day at primary school?

Yes, that's right... how to get into a decent secondary school and finding a good tutor! Here's all you need to know about the trend for tutoring...

To tutor or not to tutor, that is the question:

The schools say that you don't need tutoring to get a place. We say: sure. We know smart kids who have sailed through without extra coaching... but many more who have been tutored since the age of 4. An estimated 40% of parents are now hiring tutors at the evenings or weekends to supplement school work. And they are convinced that without tutoring, their children will be left behind...

SchoolGuru case study: Nigella*, 42, from St Albans, employed a maths tutor to help get her son into one of the top independent schools in the area.

"Princeling wasn't terrible at maths but there were definitely some big holes in his understanding and he was a bit wobbly about taking tests of any kind. In Year 5, we found a lovely retired teacher who built up his confidence and showed him how to crack the problems that were troubling him most. She also helped Princeling to organise his work (which is a very important skill at secondary school), with patient, understanding one-to-one teaching. It didn't hurt a bit that the lessons took place in our tutor's cosy front room, and that there was always a Ribena and a biscuit afterwards, along with lots of praise. Princeling looked forward to his maths tutorials and went along every week for about a year. Then he confidently took the entrance exams and sailed into the school we really wanted. All in all that lady was probably worth her weight in gold, but you do have to find the right person. They need to have a lot of patience."

*You're right, the names have been changed. The story's true though.

Trending now – tutor cupcakes! Look at these little beauties from .Cupcake chef Lucy, who's based in St Albans, was commissioned to make them for a very special (and very lucky) tutor.

Q. What’s the right age to start preparing for Oxbridge? My son is five but very smart. Sofia Carlson, Director of Tutoring at Bright Young Things gives us the lowdown.

"Parents might believe that there's no chance of getting a place at Oxbridge unless their children complete their personal statement before they start teething, and do mock interviews while they're toddlers. This is, of course, not the case. At an early age children should be guided into developing a thirst for learning and building a good foundation for future academic endeavours. A good age to start thinking about university studies, including Oxbridge, is as students approach their GCSEs and start choosing subjects which they want to develop an in depth knowledge in. That said, many 15-16 year olds have no idea what they want to do beyond secondary school. It is worthwhile to at least put some thought and effort into what area your child might be interested in reading at university and, of course, revise as best as they can for the exams to give themselves options when the time comes to apply to university."

Find out more about getting your child into Oxbridge by clicking here…

Parent: How can I find a good tutor?

SchoolGuru: It's 'buyer beware' when it comes to tutors. In the future, private tutors may be expected to abide by a code of ethics, and have minimum qualifications (eg a degree in their chosen subject). But right now, it's a free for all. So here are a few things to discuss before you get out your chequebook...

  • What are your qualifications?

  • Have you had Disclosure and Barring Service checks? (This is also known as DBS and has replaced CRB checks).

  • How many children have you helped through the entrance exams and what was your success rate?

  • How do you keep up to date with the latest teaching methods and changes in the curriculum?

  • Can I call up a couple of references? (Then do so!).

You wouldn't hire a childminder without going through a few basic checks, so don't trust your child's tutoring to anyone either. A bad tutor could be damaging for your child's education – for example, by undermining the work done at school, using different teaching methods, or even teaching your child stuff that's just wrong... so proceed with care.

Parent: What proportion of kids in Herts will have been tutored for the exams?

SchoolGuru: There are no official stats, but evidence from around the country suggests that up to half the kids who sit the exams will have been tutored. Don't let that deter you from applying though, if your child hasn't been tutored. Your child could be much smarter than the ones who've had extra help.

Anyone for tutoring? Parents turn to tutoring for a wide range of reasons.

Gabbitas, a top tutoring agency, says that tutors can support:

1. Children who are preparing for examinations (7+, 8+, 11+, common entrance, GCSE, A-level)
2. Younger children who need help with pre school entrance
3. Children who have special educational needs and require additional assistance and support outside their regular schooling
4. Children who are gifted or talented and would benefit from extended learning opportunities
5. Children who are home-schooled
6. Children who have been educated outside of the British education system and are now being re-introduced to it for a return to a British school either in the UK or internationally.

Parent: Schools in other counties are now scrapping tests that could favour the kids who've been tutored. Could that happen in Herts?

SchoolGuru: Yes, that's very possible. One of the top schools in the country, Chelmsford County High School for Girls, is introducing a new selection procedure from September 2013 that's supposedly 'tutor-proof'. Nicole Chapman, the Headmistress, said the existing 11-plus "discourages girls whose parents can't afford tutoring” from even applying to the school. Tutor-proof testing has also been introduced to top schools in Buckinghamshire and Bexley. The tests have less predictable questions and past papers are not available (so kids can't cram before the exams). Next stop Herts? We shall see...

3 ways that you help your child (without tutoring)

1. Get your child to try a few 11+ practice papers – you can get loads on the internet. They might even find it fun (kids can be strange sometimes).
2. Devise a programme of amusing educational activities (eg go to the Roman Museum in St Albans, watch a nature programme about the rain forests, pop up to London to see where the Great Fire started etc). We know someone who has a Key Stage 2 wall in her kitchen (that might be a step too far but apparently her children love it!).
3. Chillax or the kids will pick up on your stress and under-perform. Remember that getting into a school like Parmiter's is such a long shot that it's almost a lottery. There is always a Plan B (if you're a member, tell us your situation, and we can help you think things through).

If your kid's a player, this will be music to your ears...

Is it a coincidence that the smart parents are getting their kids into music at an early age? We think not. As well as the lifelong pleasure your child can get from learning to play a musical instrument, it can also be a good way into one of the best schools in the county (clever mummy!). Later down the line, it could even help with University applications, so get your child practising their scales now.

Many primary schools offer music lessons on the school premises but it's the norm to book additional lessons outside of school, as your child progresses up the grades.

These top schools in Herts offer places based on musical ability: Leventhorpe, Parmiter's, Queens', Watford Grammar School for Boys, Watford Grammar School for Girls, Dame Alice Owen, Rickmansworth School, St Clement Danes School, Bishop's Stortford High School, The Chancellor's School, Hertfordshire and Essex High School and Hockerill Anglo-European College. However there is fierce competition for the music places at these schools, so it's violin bows at dawn. Unfortunately even very talented children can miss out on places.

Does your child have other talents? Read on...
In addition to music and academic ability, there are other ways into the top schools. If your child's a whiz at reprogramming your iPhone, then John Warner School and Bushey Meades School could be worth a look – they offer places based on aptitude in technology. And for the girls and boys who can talk in tongues, Goffs School offers places based on linguistic aptitude. Bonne chance to you all, as they say in... um... Italy?

Please click here to find out more about the top schools in Herts that select by ability or aptitude.

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