This article is taken from our FREE daily investment email Money Morning.
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I wanted to tell you a story in this week’s Money Morning about an “investment decision” that my eldest son and I made precisely a year ago this week – the week before schools go back (at least in our neck of the woods).
“The most important investment you can make is in yourself”, said Warren Buffett.
He was talking about improving yourself – your skills and your knowledge.
Education, in other words…
The most important investment you can make
My eldest was always pretty good at maths. We aren’t talking about the next Pythagoras here, but he got a comfortable A* in his GCSEs and he was put into the top set at A-level. It happened quite naturally. He wasn’t pushed at home – neither his mum nor I are remotely mathematical.
His school, a mid-range private school in south London (“a hotbed of mediocrity”, I once heard it called) had a deal in Asia, whereby Chinese and South Korean kids came over to do their A-levels. They comprised more than 80% of the top set. They had been hot-housed and had pretty much done the course before they even got here.
“They’re so fast, Dad. I can’t keep up”, my son used to complain as he came from school. “Some of them are correcting the teachers.”
By half-term he was talking about giving up.
I didn’t want that. I know how useful maths is, and I felt he had a talent for it.
When the first big test came, just after half-term, he got a U. At the parent-teachers meeting, his maths teacher announced – with a certain amount of sadistic relish, I thought – that he was putting him down a set.
Meanwhile, the maths department was feeling rather pleased with itself, as it had just won the national maths championships for the first time.
“You didn’t win that”, I told them. “Those kids’ teachers in East Asia won that. You took an A* student to a U in half a term. That’s your achievement.”
Needless to say, the maths department and I were not friends from that point on.
To get a second opinion, I found a got a tutor to teach him for a couple of lessons – from a website called tutorhunt.com. An extremely together young man called Lewis, a student at King’s College London, showed up. We liked him instantly.
After a couple of lessons, Lewis said casually: “Yeah. He picks it up quickly. He’ll get an A.”
But at the end-of-year exams, my son got a D.
“There were too many questions in the paper, Dad”, he said. I doubted that.
“He has to get a C, if he’s to continue with the course”, said the maths department. “He can re-sit in August.”
I watched how hard he worked over the summer. Then he got an E.
“There were too many questions in the exam, Dad”, he said again.
“He’ll have to take the year again”, said his maths teacher. “Or drop maths and do two A-levels.”
We did not want either option.
I got a copy of his paper from the school. In the first third he got 100%, then you could see that he was panicking as time ran out, so that in the final third he got zero. There were 120 marks.
“How many marks should there be in a maths paper?” I asked his tutor, Lewis.
“70”, came the reply.
I asked his maths teacher the same question, when I eventually got him on the phone.
“70”, came the answer.
“There were 120 marks in the exam you set him.”
There was a pause.
“Let me come back to you.”
Several days later he came back to me apologising. “Yes, we set the wrong number of questions. And we are now upgrading him to a B. He can carry on with the course.”
“Please don’t make me go back to that school”, my son said. That was this week, one year ago.
I agreed with him. The maths department had done more harm than good, it seemed to me. But we didn’t even have a week to go before term started again. I didn’t even know how to go about finding him another school at such short notice.
However, that website – tutorhunt.com – was still in my mind.
I logged on, drew up a shortlist of well-reviewed local tutors, whose profiles I liked, spoke to them, checked their availability and then whittled that down to one for each subject.
We stuck with Lewis for maths. For geography we found Alex, who had graduated from King’s, and was filling in time before he went off to Sandhurst. For economics we had another King’s student, Manny.
And so began my eldest son’s home education.
Home educating isn’t cheap, but it is cheaper than a lot of private schools
Within a week I knew I needn’t bother looking for another school.
The transformation in my son’s work was instantaneous. He was more organised, more motivated, more interested in his subjects. As the teachers were just a few years older than him, he looked up to them.
The quality of his essays improved, his presentation improved, even his handwriting improved. He put in more time on his homework. The fact that he had agitated to leave the school meant he felt a greater sense of responsibility both to himself and to his parents to make it work.
Sometimes he met the tutors at university (which was quite exciting for him), or in cafés around town. Sometimes they come to our house. He had four and a half hours with each per week – the same amount of lesson time he would have had at school.
The tutors charged an average of around £30 per hour. I bargained them down on price a little as this was a long-term project and it ended up costing me about £130 per subject – say £400 a week in total, compared to roughly £580 at school. It worked out about 30% less than school fees, although we ended up doing lessons during holidays as well.
We had flexibility, if we needed it. We could increase the number of lessons. We could change teachers. We could change timetables. In fact, in economics, closer to the exam, we wanted someone with specific experience of the exam board, and hired a second tutor through the same site – Richard, a semi-retired teacher who lived nearby.
The final proof of the pudding were his grades. He got a B in geography and a B in economics. Without wishing to sound greedy, we were a little disappointed. We thought he would get As in both, and have been advised to get them re-marked.
Whatever. He got his A in maths.
I’m going to get his certificate framed and send it to the maths department.
Even with the two Bs, in all three subjects he got at least a grade higher than he would have at school.
Most importantly of all, he got his place at Bristol University to read economics. After all we have been through this year, when I got the email confirming his place, I just cried and cried. And so did my son.