Educating rich kids: inside the world of the £1,000-an-hour super-tutor

Calls from the butler, football in the ballroom and an eight-year-old boy with 15 tutors.

It was an emergency call: Mark Maclaine has the kind of reputation that means he gets emergency calls. Sometimes it is to leave the country with only 24 hours’ notice — or a few hours in rare instances, when helicopters are sent to collect him. In this case it was something different, a sign that things are going badly wrong in the industry in which he is a leading player.

“The butler phoned me,” says Maclaine, as we chat in his west London flat. “He was the lead butler, actually, in a team of eight. He said: ‘Mark, you have to come and help. The child has 15 tutors.’ The child was eight years old.”

Maclaine is what is known in the trade as a super-tutor. In Britain’s shadow education system — tutoring turns more than £2 billion a year — these people are the rock stars, and an hour of their time can command hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Maclaine began at 18 and in his mid-thirties he has clocked up 20,000 hours of tutoring with 700 students. He has also founded an agency, Tutorfair, that teaches the rich to reach the poor (his top rate is £1,000 an hour).

It makes him the Robin Hood of the academic world. Profits from palace-based lessons to princes (royal families are something of his speciality) pay for him and his team to boost poor foster kids. Later I find out his deeply personal reasons for doing this, but first I sit on his squashy sofas for my own session with him and feel like a particularly hopeless tutoree. I see his technique. He is so full of boyish enthusiasm that he can enthuse for two, but so much of what he says I have to repeat, dumbly. I can hear him perfectly well — it is just, well, 15 tutors? Eight years old?

“When I say it out loud it does sound ridiculous,” says Maclaine. “The butler said: ‘The tutors come and go every single day, some of whom I recognise, they are well-known public figures. Like a well-known gardener you might see on TV, that kind of level. I’m worried about this little kid.’ ”

The butler was the one who sounded the alarm? Yes, says Maclaine. The parents were stratospherically rich, “the kind of family who own a football club”, but they were never there. They showed they cared by hiring the best in the business for their tiny boy. When Maclaine arrived at the mansion, he found the child was having sessions with a well-known chef as well as the deputy editor of a national newspaper.

The deputy editor of a national newspaper? Teaching an eight-year-old? “Yes, because if I said to you: ‘Can you teach some English for £400 an hour?’ I’m sure you love your job, but an hour a week of that, it’s not terrible is it?”

The duality was weird. I saw living rooms bigger than my house

One by one Maclaine fired the 15 — “one hell of a job” — leaving only a “motherly” type who helped the boy to plant seeds in the garden. It was love that the boy needed to find his passions. This is Maclaine’s mission: to tame tutoring. A short, targeted burst of one-on-one support can be life-changing, he says. Maclaine means that for rich and poor alike: one of his dreams is to have a tutor in every school in the country. However, long-term dependency can be life-ruining.

“Tutoring for the sake of tutoring is not helpful,” he says. “Many people book tutors just because that’s what everyone else does. There’s this arms race: I meet parents terrified of not tutoring. I say to them: ‘Don’t have any tutoring this year.’ The look of fear on their face.

“When I started 17 years ago, you were the little secret no one wanted to talk about. Very often, if the family had visitors, they would introduce me as, ‘This is our cousin Mark. He’s helping with maths. How nice.’ I’d be like, ‘Yes, I’m cousin Mark. Hello.’ Sometimes they’d usher you discreetly out of the door. Now it has transformed to the point where I go to parent-teacher meetings as part of the team, and the teacher is really happy to have your support. That would have been unthinkable.”

Tutoring is rising at an exponential rate, according to polling by the Sutton Trust, the educational charity. Sure, private school students are almost twice as likely to receive tutoring, but it exists now at every level. Nearly half of all schoolchildren in London have had at least one tutor, but a quarter of those outside the capital have too. Asian parents are the most likely to pay for extra help. Maclaine tells me that his Uber driver was diverting every spare pound to the tutor.

In her keynote speech on schools Theresa May said she wanted to even up the chances for parents who could not “fund the extra tuition their child needs to succeed”. We have a laugh about May’s drive for more “tutor-proof” tests: Maclaine says tutors love “tutor-proof” tests because they are so much easier to tutor. Can tutoring close the gap? “I have put my life on it.”

During economic crises Maclaine sees demand rise. In these uncertain times even the richest families “don’t feel safe, but education is one thing that they think they can’t lose”. Ubiquitous tutoring is nothing short of an experiment being wrought on today’s generation of children and Maclaine is concerned that we need to act with more wisdom. When I ask what proportion of wealthy families did not tutor, he says: “Very few.

“With any medicine there is a side effect,” says Maclaine. “Tutoring I believe is the most effective form of education — the Sutton Trust clearly said it — but you can over-tutor. The side-effect is learned helplessness. It took me a long time to understand what my job was and I see it now more on a level of coaching them so they don’t need tutoring. Unlocking what was holding them back so they have more time to play.”

If the family had visitors, they would introduce me as a cousin

Through the charitable wing of Tutorfair, the agency has given free help to 6,000 students. With tutors in state school staff rooms it often takes only a few sessions to provide a breakthrough. “Five minutes to go over something after a tricky lesson in school can save hours later on,” Maclaine says. “I think over-working is a problem anyway. Will we in 20 years’ time see really serious psychological repercussions of the amount of pressure being put on kids?”

Maclaine’s parents separated early on and his father died when he was 11. His mother desperately tried to make ends meet for him and his sister. She worked as a cleaner for expensive hotels while re-training as a primary school teacher. At night he would look out of the window of their council flat near Notting Hill, west London, and see the super-rich mansions that surrounded them, “that I would later tutor in. Enormous houses, now £20 million.”

Maclaine had an aptitude for computers and wanted to be an astrophysicist, but struggled with his dyslexia. Maths was another bugbear; he slipped through the net at his comprehensive and could not catch up. He was told he was stupid and felt it. “As a kid it was quite hard to be poor and surrounded by wealth. I grew up with a certain amount of anger and frustration at my circumstances, not really being listened to, or understood. These were years that formed me.”

From the age of 16 he worked part-time to “pay his way” at home. It was when he was 18 and working in the home appliance section of Homebase in Kensington that he was spotted. He was a physics undergraduate at King’s College London (his computing skill secured him a place) and brought some of that acumen to the job.

“This woman came in and asked me about vacuum cleaners. I thought I’d tell her how they work and then she could decide. She said: ‘You explain that so well, have you thought about being a tutor?’ ” Maclaine never looked back. “I had a real hunger from the fact that you will not be able to continue going to university if you can’t pay for your food.”

It’s a world that can be status-obsessed. When he was interviewed, the first question from the tutoring agency was: “Do you have a first from Oxbridge?” Yet his CV is remarkably low key. His experience of struggle gave him empathy. “I’m one of the most successful maths tutors now in the world, certainly Europe. At least I’m told so by my agency friends.”

His first student was a teenage girl who had broken down after her mother died. She was unable to face school and was flunking her exams. Progress was painfully slow. A few sessions in, Maclaine decided to talk to her about her mother. After a good cry, the girl wiped her eyes and asked to try a few questions — a breakthrough.

“I think I was the first person who acknowledged how she felt. My first job taught me the importance of emotions because teaching is almost impossible unless you are ready to learn. Now I see a tutor as part-way between a friend and a teacher.”

His pay jumped from minimum wage in Homebase to £30 an hour and he was hooked. Yet he became what I think of as a character in a novel, working on jets or on yachts then back home to the council house. In fact Jonathan Coe’s novel Number 11 has a hero who is a tutor like Maclaine from modest origins, working for an obscenely rich family carving out 11 storeys of basement under their west London mansion, although they “can’t think of anything they want it for”.

“The duality was really weird. I got to see living rooms bigger than my house. I remember with one student we would take breaks and play football in the ballroom in their house. To have a ballroom in the countryside is pretty nice. To have a ballroom in the Sloane Square area . . .”

However, there were sadnesses too. One child told him: “My mother orders tutors the way some people order pizzas.” He asked another young boy when he last saw his parents, and “he said, ‘I don’t know, I think they’re away. I saw them on Sunday for dinner.’ It was a Thursday. I went downstairs and they were there, but just on such a separate schedule. He must have been nine.”

Now both sides of Maclaine’s life — the poor kid who felt he’d failed and the super-tutor helping his unimaginably rich neighbours to succeed — have come together. He believes very strongly in helping both rich and poor.

“What I really saw when I walked into a house was a little kid. Often I saw myself. A kid who really needed to be heard, had a lot of stuff put on them. A lot of expectations, and they were just a child. Very quickly, I learnt they had no choice where they were born. If they were born to ridiculous wealth, how can they know any different?”