“Inequality runs deeper than paying or not paying for schooling”: a tutor writes

by Hannah Smethurst

Before you read this, it’s important to note that I’m not a “real” teacher. I am a part-time private tutor, offering 1-to-1, or 1-to-small group tutoring, ranging from National 5 level to PhD, from Maths to Law. My experiences over the past few years will be drastically different from those having to work full-time in this crumbling system, and their voices need to be heard, and listened to. Seriously, check on your teacher friends, they need support and gin right now.

That said, private tutoring has opened my eyes to the seedy underbelly of assessments, especially at National 5 and Higher level. Before I started offering help to struggling students I did not realise, and I doubt many people realise, the true extent to which money matters. Rather than professing wide-ranging knowledge of the area, I would just like to tell you the stories of three children I have worked with. All three students sat Higher English this summer, meaning over the past year or so they had to put together their portfolio – a discursive essay, and a piece of creative writing, each about 1,000 words long. The other 70% of the mark comes from an exam, which none of them were able to sit this year. 

1: Jack

Jack lives to the south of Edinburgh, and attends one of the most prestigious (and expensive) schools in the city. He contacted me directly to ask for help with his coursework. By ‘help’ he was, of course, asking me to write it for him. Jack announces this in a coffee shop very close to his school, having just seen one of his teachers buy a latte to take away. Jack understood what he was asking might be classed as cheating, but he was having a difficult year, and 70% of the assessment was exam anyway. All his friends are doing it. His parents know about it – he could show me evidence of the specific school-related bank account they set up for him, if I wanted. I say I’m happy to read through anything he writes, but it has to come from him. Jack laughs. Are you sure? He asks me. It’s good money, he says. He tilts his head and smiles at me, a patronising look he has undoubtedly learned from peers and family alike, and points out he has three other tutors lined up that day alone. One of them would do it for him. I refuse again, and try and work out what exactly he’s struggling with. Oh, he’s not struggling, he assures me. He could do it. He just doesn’t want to. I charge him for my coffee and leave.

2: Alex

Alex also lives in Edinburgh, in a large flat with stunning views. Alex attends the local state school, along with several siblings. His mother informs me that they did not want to give their children an unfair start in life. She’s very open-minded, you see. She didn’t come from money and expects her children to work hard like she did. Alex has a private tutor for every subject he is sitting. We sit in the ‘study room’, a large room with a desk and monitor for each child pressed against each wall, and he tries to engage when I ask him about his discursive writing, but he’s really more interested in Science and Computing. His mother loses her temper with him, and me, for his lack of progress. Every essay he sends over to me, she has already read through and annotated. One evening she rings me. Alex is a smart boy, she says. He’s just struggling with this course because his school does not give him useful feedback. If she paid extra, could I send over some answers to exam questions that Alex could just memorise for the exam? It’s exactly the same as if he was to do them, he’s still got to memorise them, he just doesn’t have time at the moment. He’s a very busy boy, she says. Speaking of being busy, he’s got a rough plan for his creative writing, but could I fill it out a bit for him. It’s not really cheating, he’s got most of the ideas down. All his friends are doing it. He’s very busy, she says.  

3: Mary

Mary lives pretty close to Alex, and also attends a local state school. I have been working with Mary for 3 years, helping her mainly with Maths and English. She lives with her parents and grandmother, and does not have access to a dining table, so all her work is completed leaning on a textbook on her bed. Mary’s teachers do not have time to read through her coursework drafts in great detail, so her feedback, while useful, is limited to “watch your sentence structure” and “be careful with punctuation”. Her portfolio for Nat 5 was submitted with 15 grammatical errors. I give her as much help as I am allowed to. Mary’s parents wish they could give her more help, even just reading through her writing, but neither of them are academic, so do not know where to start. Mary tentatively asks me for help with her exam – she has all the information but does not know how to structure it. I help her form it into solid answers, and she sets about memorising them for the exam. Neither Mary nor her family ever asked me to do work for her.


For anyone wondering, the two boys in this situation are on their way to the universities of their choices. Jack’s parents are in the process of buying him a flat to live in 20 minutes’ walk from campus. Mary is having to resit her Maths and English. A large part of this discrepancy is the algorithmic decision-making that was employed for the past exam season, which is a different post in itself. However, this situation is not wholly unique. Every time coursework season comes around, I am inundated with requests to write it for students. Exam season arrives alongside emails asking for perfect answers for perfect children to memorise.

Inequality runs deeper than paying or not paying for schooling. It’s the ability to buy every revision guide and book of practice questions that’s available. It’s the ability to hire private tutors. It’s your parents having the time and energy and knowledge to read through your work. It’s the money to know you can hire someone to write your work for you. It’s having a dedicated area to work, even if that’s just on a specific bit of a dining table.

There are problems with every system – exams, for example, are a very binary way of measuring achievement – but those problems can only be tackled when this extra benefit that children from wealthier families gain, even outside of fee-paying schools, is properly addressed.


The names of students in this article, and some of their personal details, have been changed.

Hannah Smethurst is currently a student on the DPLP course at the University of Edinburgh, having gained a distinction in the Innovation, Technology and the Law LLM at the University of Edinburgh. She has been working as a research assistant for various professors for the past few years, examining the interaction between education and technology, drawing on her experience working as a private tutor for nearly a decade. hannahsmethurst.co.uk

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