As an English teacher in New York City’s public school system at the height of the crack epidemic in the late 1980s, Matt Bardin was not surprised that some of the children who claimed to dodge bullets to get to class had problems reading. It seemed to the young Mr Bardin that the task was futile. “They were lovely kids, but when you’ve got 30 of them at a time, you just feel like you’re being pretty useless and you’re not really having much of an impact on them.”
After four years he quit, opting to tutor the offspring of Manhattan’s wealthy instead. That, he reckoned, would surely be easier. The Park Avenue apartments were certainly more rarefied. But he says he was shocked that many of these affluent children, educated at expensive schools, shared the same problem as those he had taught at public school: they could not read properly.
He cites as an example a girl he tutored early on, whose parents were both doctors and who attended a private school on the Upper East Side. In spite of “working her tail off”, he says she could not read properly: “She forced her way through school by scanning the text and memorising certain terms and working hard.”
Such children, he says, are eventually found out by the SAT, the most widely used test to get into American universities, which requires college-level reading. “There’s only so well you can do with tricks and shortcuts.”
Today, 22 years later, the Princeton-educated Mr Bardin says he charges $600 an hour or $900 for 90 minutes. He has up to 50 freelancers working for his Veritas Tutors agency. While he is based largely in New York, many of his lessons are delivered over Skype, increasingly to Chinese and Russian children living not just in their home nations but also in London (where he is today, having seen, among others, Elisabeth Murdoch, whose daughter he taught).
There is a problem with school education, he says. “It’s run by people like me. I read something and understand it. But for most people that’s not the case.”
He argues that the tendency of teachers to automatically correct their students masks a serious problem: that their charges do not read accurately or do not process the information correctly.
Mr Bardin says the value of one-on-one tuition is that students are forced to address this problem. “They can’t hide.”
He believes tests are good. Mr Bardin deems them a “magnificent lab” because they give “quantitative feedback and kids are motivated and excited when they see the numbers going up”.
The 6ft 5in bespectacled tutor has a fierce intensity. When he leans in to hear what you are saying, you feel he is definitely listening. He says what makes him different is that, unlike other tutors who teach children shortcuts or “gaming the test”, he makes them “better at what the test measures—your ability to read and think, process numbers and use your head effectively”.
New York, he insists, is a world leader in tutoring. Money is sloshing around, a baby boom has meant that there is stiff competition for schools, and foreign demand for Ivy League places is putting local students under more pressure to do well.
The super-wealthy’s imperviousness to the recession means that he has a steady client base. “We have a critical mass of people who were not at all impacted by the financial crisis, and it seems like there are more and more people like that.”
The increased wealth in emerging and oil-rich countries means that his tutors are in demand beyond the confines of New York. A year ago, Mr Bardin moved to Abu Dhabi temporarily to support his wife, a tenured film professor at New York University, who was setting up the arts programmes for its college there. His intention was to start a branch in the UAE but he instead decided to recruit and train tutors in New York to instruct via Skype.
Mr Bardin claims that online sessions are no less intimate than face-to-face ones. In fact, when he visits New York, his students there opt to keep the session online rather than meet. “It is nice because there’s a lot less social interaction. You’re not dealing with the physical presence of someone, so you can be very focused and intense. Once in a while, you can see their eye checking their email. You say, ‘what are you doing?’ But it works. If you’re not going to connect with a kid, then I don’t think you’re going to connect with them in person either. It’s weird how intense the bond can be.”
There is no reduction in charges for online tuition. How can he justify such high prices? “If you’ve invested half a million dollars in your child’s private school education, you’d be an idiot not to spend whatever additional money to get them into a better university because you’re going to spend another quarter of a million dollars on their four years of college, and you’re going to spend that whether you send them to some no-name college or you send them to Yale. So it’s better for them to go somewhere where they’ll be in a great cohort and do very well.”
A typical spend is usually $5,000 to $15,000. Some people, he says, have spent upwards of $100,000 on his services. Some of Veritas’s tutors have spent weeks on yachts teaching their charges.
The 48-year-old is, however, keen to point out that 30 per cent of his work involves teaching students for free.
Mr Bardin brushes off the suggestion that tuition adds to pressure on children, seeing the end results—high grades, acceptance into an elite university, learning – as enjoyable prizes. Nonetheless, he concedes that he often has to intervene to stop parents adding stress to their children.
If a child is taking drugs he will talk to their parents. His worst pupil smoked pot round the clock and never did any work—Mr Bardin fired him.
The offspring of the super-rich have their own problems, he says. “Many of them worry about meriting their privileged status. The pressure to pay rent spares most of us the need to justify our existence. Nietzsche saw too much conscience as an illness. What can you possibly do as a child to merit yachts and limos and private jets?” All mothers and fathers, he says, want the best for their children. But many see their child’s university “as the final stamp of approval on their parenting”.
Caring is important to his role, he says. By this he does not mean that he is a confidant. No, not at all. “The best pastoral care is to raise your score and make you better at reading and thinking.”