Finding the best mentor for your child: How Oppidan hires the A Team

Since its inception within the shadow education system, tutoring has, for the most parts, held a pejorative reputation. Parents do not readily admit to having a tutor, whilst schools and agencies do not historically get along. This is in part due to the personnel companies employ. The majority of tutoring companies comprise of university undergraduates looking for a quick buck, and recent graduates who’ve just left home; seeking purpose whilst they find a “proper job”, they turn to tutoring as short-term, low-commitment and high-reward work.

This is of course not the case with all tutors and one company in particular, Keystone Tutors, has done, and continues to do, a fantastic job at professionalising the industry. Crucially though, parents remain concerned by the quality of experience across the sector and the risk of putting faith in somebody with little or no stake in the game.

How, therefore, are we able to negate this worry? Within the context of its team of mentors, what does Oppidan look for and importantly, how do we hire a team that we know will be worthy of the trust parents put in us?

At Oppidan we’re fortunate to have a steady stream of applications to join our team, all of whom are as interesting and diverse as the next. My humble opinion supposes our mentors to be some of the most intelligent and gifted people of our generation. Quite why we’re able to attract a broad church isn’t totally clear, but we believe part of the answer lies within our approach to education; those in the liberal arts and entrepreneurially-minded young professionals are drawn by the wider scope they have to their teaching and the focus on the soft skills associated with more broad-minded concepts we promote.

They are the foundation of our team and provide an attractive team to mentor and look after children. Critically, the team isn’t going anywhere; our mentors are recruited for the long-term - their desire for developing a child’s virtues not merely a passing phase, but their foremost personal goal.  

Our hiring policy starts therefore with commitment. As any parent, coach or teacher knows, mentorship will only deliver the desired result if the relationship between mentor and mentee is sustained over a meaningful period of time. However, commitment only takes you so far. This may be a prerequisite, but a guarantee of availability doesn’t set one team apart from another team. So what else do we look for?

Personality over profession was our original mantra. We hired on the basis of empathy, of efficiency and on the ability to communicate. We thought that enthusiasm, creativity and originality in a one-on-one setting outweighed the respective qualities of a teacher in a big classroom. We believed that children would far rather engage with somebody who wasn’t in education; they’d prefer to spend time with a “role model,” “impartial elder sibling” or somebody removed from pedagogy. This is true and all well and good, and these remain characteristics we look for. After all, children respect young people who’ve recently gone through their own education, with whom they can empathise. But whilst these qualities are important, in reality this isn’t enough.

Because this is where the current tutoring industry sits – a comfortable duality between commitment and experience. We believe parents should have higher expectations.

The answer to hiring a good team rests on something far greater. It goes beyond the remit of experience, of creativity or enthusiasm. We believe a good team is more that just the sum of its parts. Whilst each mentor is in himself or herself wonderfully diverse and different, true value within a team is created through an unwavering, united philosophy they follow.

Today’s complex society necessitates that children’s educational development is holistic and guided by a cutting-edge and performance-driven methodology. This is our vision: to pair children with the best mentors to help them reach their full potential through the product: mentoring.

The benefit to this puts the customer at ease. The threat of short-termism is quashed. No longer should they worry about the “individuality of the tutor.” Because those who seek our services are assured that each mentor put forward to them has been recruited under the same methodological criteria and trained through the same high-quality programmes; they follow the same philosophy and they understand the role they are to play. No longer is a client matched to the role; they’re matched to the philosophy.

The philosophy recruits the mentors.

Unlike any other tuition service on the market, that’s what makes Oppidan different.  

Life as an Oppidan mentor

I started as a mentor with Oppidan whilst completing law school in London. I needed a job that fitted alongside my studies, so flexibility was crucial, and Oppidan very much fitted the bill. I had actually been babysitting for an agency in London (their only male babysitter!) and, as much as this was a great experience, I soon realised that mentoring for Oppidan was a more time-efficient job which I found ultimately more rewarding. Since finishing law school in June 2017 and with my training contract with a City law firm starting in February 2018, I have begun mentoring more and more for Oppidan over the last 6 months. And I have loved every moment of it! Finding myself on a mentoring job in Florida for a week, sitting on the beach in 30-degree heat whilst London was freezing, actually made me think twice about swapping the impending long hours sat in a dark, gloomy City office for more experiences mentoring on a warm beach!  

So, what’s it like as a mentor for Oppidan? A few words spring to mind straight away: interesting, fun, different and, occasionally, inexplicably amazing.  

The first thing that struck me about Oppidan was that you’re called a mentor, not a tutor. Mention the ‘t’ word and you’ll receive a stern look and correction from anyone at Oppidan. Perhaps cynically I thought this seemed like a trivial marketing ploy, but once you speak to Walter and Henry (the passionate founders of Oppidan) you begin to realise that they’ve found a subtle, yet fundamental difference in education that highlights what can be wrong with one-on-one support for children.

You may ask yourself, what is the difference? Well, it’s a little bit like answering the question, what’s the difference between a manager and a leader? The best analogy I’d use is to imagine a group of 12 people pulling a big stone along a road. A manager sits on top of the stone and tells the group how and what to do. A leader will also tell the group how and what to do, but will do so whilst pulling from the front of the group, showing them how and guiding them towards their objective. In many ways, I feel this is the same with tutors and mentors: tutors teach, mentors teach by leading - a subtle yet incredibly powerful difference to a mentee.

I remember my favourite teachers at school were the ones I looked up to and could relate to – they were mentors, not just tutors. This has a massive effect on the children you mentor that has enormous long-term implications as they progress through their schooling.

Secondly, the team at Oppidan are fantastic. I had known both Walter and Henry before I started mentoring, so maybe I’m a little biased, but the passion they have for Oppidan and the services they provide, as well as education in general, is remarkable. They are both incredibly knowledgeable and two of the most naturally gifted mentors I’ve seen in action. However, the day-to-day point of contact at OE is the wonderful Tilly, who is always available to answer all questions and queries. As a team, from my experience, they are incredibly supportive to their mentors. They explain everything, from first meeting a new mentee, to model lesson plans, to how their charge out rates work.  

One thing that I really like is the fact that Oppidan don’t take advantage of the mentor by adding on large commission to the price they charge the client for your services. They keep a flat rate no matter what your rate is or how many hours you do. This means you can earn a fairer and generally higher rate compared to other agencies, who might have you on a lower rate as they have a higher fee. In my opinion, this is better for both the mentor and the client. They also get to know their mentors really well, asking about their styles of teaching, their personalities and interests, and their strengths and weaknesses. They then repeat a similar process when talking to Oppidan’s clients. This means they can then match a suitable mentor to each mentee, and this immediately makes the mentor’s job easier, and increases the chances of a really successful partnership going forward.

Finally, the opportunities Oppidan offers are incredible, both domestically and abroad. If you’ve got some free time during the school holidays, there are always some amazing jobs to exotic countries all over the world. I have been lucky enough to travel out to Florida with a great family in my time and, although I was carrying out some intensive mentoring, I had time off to explore the area and get the all-important winter tan. During the summer, I was able to work at one of Oppidan’s Summer EduCamps. It was the sort of camp I would have relished as a child; nothing like the ones run by senior schools or big organisations that I used to go to. There’s a focus on a child’s enjoyment and teaching vital life skills that will be beneficial to them as they go on with life, from good manners and proper etiquette, to how to cook and debate, to how to catch a water balloon from 50 metres away – the list is endless. The atmosphere on the minibus back to London after the camps says it all – laughter turns to a quiet murmur, then turns to silence, as everyone, including yours truly, falls off to sleep. The excitement and fun catches up with us all!

To sum up, working as a mentor at Oppidan has been a fantastic experience for me personally. It’s the perfect job for those looking for flexibility and working with children supports core values and principles that are applicable in pursuing other career paths. With the advantage of relative youth, as a mentor, I have been able to offer advice and direction to school children, away from the targets of school work, which I hope will have given them the structure and support they have needed to progress throughout their years at school. 

By Charlie Goodwin 


Mentoring under the Microscope

“I appreciate what Oppidan are doing, treating children like young adults, stimulating their learning whilst having fun. His confidence is through the roof as is his self-esteem and self worth – this is a godsend.”

Mr. Velez

August 2017

At the risk of self-promotion, this testimonial from an Oppidan parent encapsulates the breadth of education that mentoring allows.  The narrative of mentoring and the success it brings focuses on support, direction and guidance. It highlights the role of the mentor in promoting development and potential commensurate with a child’s ability. It advocates humble curiosity, confidence and adaptability as the soft skills associated with “slow education” at the expense of prescriptive target-based tuition. In turn, this helps foster independence at school and at home, and a sense of self-worth which goes some way to helping manage the stress for children and parents in pursuing academic challenges.

It is self-evident that the mark of a good mentor is the rapport they are able to nurture with a student. This should be obvious. If the student doesn’t trust or value the mentor, little progress is made. We often say that the difference between mentoring and tutoring is intrinsic: as the relationship develops, the shift happens organically and the mentor takes on a different role that transcends academia. Once the child is invested in you, the sky is the limit as to what can be achieved. You are as much a mentor in the enthusiasm and the personality you bring to the lesson as you are in the actual content of the lesson.

As already discussed, the ethos of mentoring stresses encouragement, empathy and creativity within learning: above all, a sense that learning is fun and to be taken advantage of. But how does that manifest itself within a lesson? This is a question Henry and I are often asked. “The narrative sounds wonderful but what will you do differently?”

Mentors differ in their approach to one-on-one teaching not only in the personality they exude within that lesson but also in the way they teach and the content and the creativity they bring to it. A child will more likely do well with a teacher they like, but there are also specific techniques that help engage and promote active learning. Through these, they take mentoring from a frilly add on to something tangible which produces results and practical progress.

1.)   Lessons must be student led: Too often tutors follow the same passive form of teacher-led teaching at schools. Instead, students of whatever age must be encouraged to take the initiative on what they want to learn and what they think would be beneficial to study.

2.)   “I teach, we teach, you teach:” Research shows that if a child has to teach the material they have learnt, the material is far better understood. A move from lecturing to discussion and then onto teaching ensures marked improvement and gives children the confidence to be able to tackle difficult material.

3.)   Active Learning:  Encourage movement during lessons. Whether that be through placing an exercise on each side of a table and moving around it completing each exercise, or simply taking the lesson outside, taking a lesson outside a classroom environment helps a child relax and feel at ease.

4.)   Focus on Self-Projection: Lessons should involve situations where children (and mentors) are asked to present, to speak about themselves, to debate, critique or question an article, passage or piece of literature. The Radio 4 game show “Just a Minute” is brilliant preparation for interviews as well as vital in learning to project.

5.)   Mentor - Child Performance Reviews Mentors and their charges should spend time focusing on how the other person is performing. A novel concept at first, barriers are broken down and it’s hugely rewarding for the child to take control of the lesson.

6.)   Demystifying the Comprehension: There is reason to suggest that the comprehension is the least popular task within the English syllabus. And rightly so – the concept is disconnected from what students take satisfaction from: real-life learning. A good tip is to practice comprehension skills on the book that child is reading – they’ll take far more interest in something they are already invested in.

7.)   Overcoming Perfectionism: Allow a child to be wrong. Often. Discussion on “thunks”, a collection of questions with no simple answers, helps children understand the process and train of thought and the need for clarity in explaining their reasoning.

8.)   Super-Curricula Studies: A brief from a parent to improve a child’s English or Maths should still involve aspects that go beyond what the curriculum dictates should be taught. 20-word summaries of books they have read, poetry analysis contextualised within what they are learning at school, art history or even situational thinking (working out the date of historical events based on clues you are given) help keep things fresh in otherwise often-dry subject matter.

9.)   Lesson-Analysis Oral plenary sessions at the end of a lesson help round off what has been learnt and negates any sense of confusion within the child. What has been learnt? What are the key points? How do you evaluate what has been learnt? How could you apply this knowledge?

These techniques are neither novel nor are they the only way to make a success of teaching one-on-one. But if in a small way, they help change expectations and make the child look forward to the lesson, then I would argue progress is being made.

By Walter Kerr 

How to Choose the Right Mentor

Children are wonderfully diverse and the way they learn best differs case by case.  As such, pairing each child with a mentor is a thoughtful and methodical process and one that requires diligence and sensitivity. The key is the fit: to find a mentor that works with your child as an impartial yet fully engaged part of their education. Once your child looks forward to their time spent with a mentor, the toughest barrier is broken and both independence and enjoyment can be found in their sessions together.

As client manager for Oppidan Education, I take the greatest care and responsibility in researching the best possible match for both the child and mentor. To do this, I find out important, fundamental details including similar personality traits, interests and hobbies, as well as looking at their respective schooling and whether that will be an added benefit to the child. The mentors we employ and those that work best with children have the requisite experience and the know-how with regards to specific teaching methods and curricula. More than this though, the match is personality based. I look for empathy, enthusiasm and their ability to engage a child fully in the process of learning.

A key element in choosing the right mentor for a child is to look at the way in which a child responds differently to male and female interaction. It’s often difficult for young boys to empathise with older girls and vice versa. With entrance procedures for co-ed schools, registrars look at how girls and boys interact for the first time at assessment day, and so for families applying to these schools, it is often in fact better to have a mentor of the opposite sex work with their child.

I establish how much the child needs motivating and encouraging; quite often one session with a mentor is enough to change their expectation or perspective of what is required of them.  A long chat on the phone or a meeting in person helps establish who best will work with your child, and once I have found the two most ideal mentors and subsequently discussed them with you, the choice is down to the client and it is on their lead that a plan is put in place. Very often trial sessions are a good way to figure out if the chemistry between the child and mentor is right.

A huge satisfaction in my job is watching the developments between a successful pairing take place. If the mentor is helping the child to be happy, fulfilled and achieving at their very best, we have done a good job. Whether working towards a tangible target such as passing Common Entrance, or perhaps focusing on the soft skills we associate with confidence and conviction, successful pairing can have a monumental influence on a child’s educational and personal development. Witnessing the all-round happy outcome it breeds gives me great satisfaction and motivates me further to help pioneer a different approach to one-on-one teaching.

By Tilly St Aubyn

Oppidan EduCamps 2017 – A Busy Summer

In July 2016, Walter and I sat down to discuss the thought of putting on a summer camp for some of the children we had worked with in London. We fondly remembered our own prep school days and happy memories of camping, both at home and on school trips. There is a sense of adventure and simplicity to those memories, to a time when little else mattered and great fun could be had without the need for modern or technological comforts. We had seen first hand how our mentoring ethos took roots in the outdoor setting of the Peligoni; a different set-up to our regular one-to-one tuition and mentoring work in London, but one that worked just as well. We put our heads together for how children could take advantage of their holiday time, to prepare for school tests and transitions, while having a great time and making new friends. The idea of the camps has been to subtly infuse each and every moment of the day with value-adding moments; to help children mature and learn while having fun. Just as our mentoring ethos dictates, a child’s education shouldn’t forget the soft skills that are in fact the hardest to pinpoint.

On this basis, we founded Oppidan Camps with one core principle: to take learning outside of the classroom. After two successful trial camps in 2016 that took place in Wiltshire and in France, 2017 brought ten ‘educamps’ and well over a hundred children to Oppidan’s various sites in Wiltshire, Berkshire and Hampshire.

The camps have taken on three forms: private camps at a client’s own home, school camps with us and finally our own camps with varied groups of children who often don’t know each other at all.

The menu has included a plethora of activities, many of which were simply things that Walter and I loved as children. Dragons Den business pitching, creative writing, maths on the tennis court, poetry and performance workshops, cooking, team sports and challenges, capture the flag, rocket building, tent pitching, lake swimming, fire building, BBQing, marshmallow toasting, ghost storytelling, German Spotlight and a sometimes slightly chilly night in one of our canvas bell tents. We have loved every minute and it’s been phenomenally rewarding to see such a positive response from the children too.

Though the scheduling and execution has almost seamlessly gone to plan, the camps involve a huge amount of work and we’re grateful to all those who have helped. Firstly, thank you to our parents, without whose support Oppidan would cease to exist. Thank you also to Tilly who has worked tirelessly in the office to take bookings and arrange the minutiae of each camp. To our mentors: a brilliant group of young and enthusiastic people who have entertained and inspired at every turn. And lastly, thanks to our chefs, who have slaved from 7am to 10pm to ensure that the best home-cooked food ends up on the table.

But what plans for 2018? We have big ideas to make Oppidan Camps a permanent feature on the summer calendar. We hope to offer Oppidan EduCamps throughout the summer with exciting additions to come.

By Henry Faber 

Five Reasons to Hire a Mentor

Tutoring is certainly subject to its fair share of misconceptions. In the most narrow of definitions, the tutoring market sees academic support as target-based, prescriptive teaching with utilitarian goals and short-term rewards. This is exemplified by the parent who employs the help of a tutor to bolster their child’s chances of passing an exam or assessment. For many, the proof is in the pudding. Testimonials for tutors often read, ‘let’s wait before we give our verdict’.

To judge one-on-one support in this way is fundamentally limiting. Tutors may indirectly improve a child’s chances to succeed in exams but rarely are they wholly responsible for the attainment of better grades. Schools and teachers are already doing a brilliant job in providing the support children require. They therefore neither need, nor seek to endorse, the extra support tutoring brings. Their remarks about the industry are scathing at best.

Role of the Mentor

If academic tuition is here to stay, and the rising number of tutoring companies would suggest so, what can it offer away from the ‘promise’ of better grades? Better put, can teaching outside the classroom, in whatever form we ascribe it, work harmoniously alongside schools to provide direction and stability for a child?

Contrary to popular belief, spoon-feeding a child the material to pass an exam is not the most important benefit of a tutor. The most productive step a mentor can take is to help children invest their energy in the process of learning. What excellent mentoring does is illicit in a child the foresight to see what his or her education can bring. It should foster confidence in children and should give them the conviction to succeed on their own. In this way, they return to school with renewed enthusiasm for their subjects and a sense of perspective that will help them reap the rewards their education is offering.

I asked five of Oppidan’s mentors which skills they thought important to teach their children, away from the restrictions of the syllabus:

1. Overcoming perfectionism

‘Children should try and distance themselves from what other people think. They should trust that all they need to do and worry about is doing their best. It is vital for children to know early on that mistakes are not only “ok” but also essential for their development.’

2. Building self-worth

‘Tutors often focus on the importance of confidence, particularly in interviews for pre-tests. This is a mistake; instead, tutors should help guide children to feel comfortable within their own talents and their own successes commensurate with their ability. Self-esteem is vital, not least, in presenting in front of one’s own peers.’

3. Being adaptable

The values on which we judge employability are in a state of perpetual change and children must be given the tools to adapt to these shifting expectations.’

4. Enjoying education

‘Children should aspire towards a humble curiosity in a wide array of subjects in order to value their education for the sake of education, not because “it is in the test”.’

5. Valuing empathy and cooperation

‘In our radically changing modern context, the ability to empathise with fellow students will be a defining factor in a child’s long-term success or failure. Tutors and mentors should help students learn to work as a team and to trust the abilities of others.’

By Walter Kerr 

Oppidan Education at The Peligoni Club – Summer Half Term 2016

Over this Summer’s Half Term, Walter and I had the good fortune to team up with The Peligoni Club in Greece to mentor for their Half Term week. The idea was simple: to create a dynamic environment in which to revise, to assist different ages and levels and to incorporate the easy-going ethos of The Peligoni into our teaching time with students.

With a beautiful location and perfect weather for the week, our job was made easy. A long list of academic and sporting challenges included poetry workshops for 11+ boys, GCSE revision for teenage girls and Maths on the tennis court for some early teen boys. Walter brilliantly put together an assortment of Maths challenges to be served up over the net, while I made the most of our Oppidan Poetry anthology with some sharp and enthusiastic 11+ pupils. With such a spread of ages and levels, the task seemed a tough one at first, but was soon made easier by such polite, hardworking and energetic children all around the club.

Our week at The Peligoni proved a brilliant start to a wonderful partnership with the great Peli team. It also showed that mentoring ‘out-and-about’ is the best way to work constructively in holiday time. The Peli was a perfect place to enjoy our mentoring work and we hope our students found their mornings less a chore, more a fun way to make the most of holiday time.

We look forward to heading back to the club next summer and with planning well underway, there should be a few more joint projects for the Oppidan/Peligoni partnership. Our deepest thanks go to all the Peli team both in London and Greece, and most of all, to our dedicated students, all of whom we so enjoyed getting to know and look forward to seeing again.

Mentoring: The Road Less Travelled

Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is a valuable teaching tool for all ages. A wholly approachable poem, it sets up a metaphor for the ‘traveller’ facing a choice between two paths; the first is rather more ‘worn’. To my mind, this path perfectly reflects the current state of the private tuition market: somewhat overused, dark and murky, under-regulated and an expensive risk for parents demanding better results for their children. If we brush aside the quality-control and trust issues that have beset the private tuition market in recent years, parents and schools still rightly struggle with the moral issues surrounding the never-ending rat race for places in top British schools. The question is always the same: how do I give my child a better chance to gain entry to a top school and achieve in the long-term?

In my role as a mentor I hear many parents demand answers to problems that can’t realistically be bought. Aims are utilitarian, practical, exam-focused. Particularly at 11+, parents are hoping for dramatic and often impossible improvements in psychometric testing results when, in reality, useful work is about acquiring the confidence, comfort and technique to approach assessment days maturely, both for children and for their parents.

Of course there is a place for one-on-one tuition. Specifically targeted help can be enormously useful. But are we perhaps forgetting the things that really matter? That children are happy, fulfilled and confident within themselves, and capable of doing their best. In the end this is all we can ask of them.

Mentoring has so far proved an attractive idea to parents and to schools. I have no desire to offer what schools do so well themselves (the teaching) but what they often admit they don’t have time for. Conversations with several of the most competitive, high-profile schools have proved this, and shown that schools are willing to work in partnership with mentors. Mentoring is the extra-curricular, the culture, the confidence and the added care. Mentors are young, brilliant, inspiring and fun. They combine the job of role model, tutor, advisor and impartial elder sibling. They offer support and care for both students and parents, and not just enable, but guarantee that children are able to do their best.

Though boarding schools have perhaps become less popular with modern parents, I continue to support the all-inclusive, independent and innately mature environment that most boarding schools offer. The same approach is at the core of mentoring. It is an ethos that defines mentoring not as a luxury add-on, but as an essential part of any child’s education. Mentoring helps to build up the organisation and independence skills needed to tackle the intensity of school life, and the variety to enjoy the time beyond it.

I for one hope that parents will feel confident themselves in the job they are doing for their children. Regardless of what school they end up at, what will children remember of their formative years? Rigorous testing in an ‘over-pressured cooker’? Or a balanced and memorable mix of solid school work and all the trimmings that can and should go with it.

It’s a common misconception that Frost’s poem only challenges us to be adventurous; it is also about avoiding indecision. He begs his reader to make a decision, to take hold. As children choose their own path forward, through schools, universities and jobs, there’s frustratingly little we can do to greatly alter their trajectory. Perhaps it’s best we show decisiveness and remind ourselves and them of the excitements that lie beyond the classroom, and the things that make life special. It is through those thrills that they will be encouraged towards greatness. With a little luck, they might even stand an inch or two taller when it comes to 11+.