Athena Tuition Scotland: An Interview with Fiona Barnett

Athena Tuition Scotland: An Interview with Fiona Barnett

Following Athena Tuition's recent tutoring conference in Edinburgh  'Teaching Outside the Classroom', we arranged a Q&A with their Director for Scotland, Fiona Barnett.

First of all Fiona, how did the event in Edinburgh go? (Apologies that I couldn’t attend myself - I did have every intention of coming along).

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Athena Tuition's 'Teaching Outside the Classroom' conference

It went really well thanks Jamie – as well as a lot of tutors who’ve worked with Athena Tuition before, there was also a wide selection of people from the tutoring industry across Edinburgh and beyond. It was a great opportunity to meet and interact with a lot of our colleagues and we’ve had some fantastic feedback from attendees.

Not only did the conference bring together those interested in tutoring but education professionals and companies as well. How important is collaboration in the private tutoring industry today?

I think it’s very important, especially in Scotland where SQA qualifications are so prevalent alongside GCSEs and A Levels, International Baccalaureates and the rest. There’s a lot of specialist knowledge to be had, Scotland-specific and otherwise, in what is really quite a small community – especially in comparison with, say, tutoring in London.

Collaborating and working together to pool that expertise is the best way to equip tutors and companies to help as many students as possible. There’s a lot we can learn from tutors outside Scotland too – one of the greatest benefits of our links with London is being able to tap into a whole other pool of expertise.

The event featured presentations from specialists in learning difficulties. What conclusions were drawn as to how tutors can best work with children with, for instance, ADHD or dyslexia?

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Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen discussing how to best help students with autism

One of the greatest strengths of one-to-one tuition is that there’s so much room to focus on the specific needs of individual students. Recognition of special educational needs in school-age students is on the rise and often tutors can feel unsure of how best to help students to their advantage.

We were very lucky to have chartered psychologist Aicha Reid to talk about the symptoms and effects of dyslexia and ADHD, and Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen to discuss the best ways to help students on the autistic spectrum. Several tutors who attended told us that they now feel a lot more confident about working with students with those specific needs.

One of the aims of the event was to help people keep abreast of the latest innovations in tutoring. What areas were discussed specifically at the conference and what do you see as being the current innovations/trends in the industry? 

The big one at the moment is online tuition, which is increasingly being used to connect students in isolated areas with the best tutors to help them. We have plenty of tutors who work with students around the world, but I think there are areas in Scotland that can also benefit from that kind of technological innovation.

A more diverse and competitive tuition market is great for students, and it also means that tutors need to keep a close eye on their professional development, to improve and adapt with the educational system.

At Athena, we really want to be at the forefront of improving the pool of high-quality tutors available in Edinburgh and across Scotland – the Tutors’ Association is also helping to lead the way with this, so it was great also to hear from its president, Adam Muckle, about the directions the organisation is going in.

The conference also touched upon the various different online tools that are available to students. Can you tell us a bit more about the tools that were discussed at the event?

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Tutors and educational professionals networking at the event

Athena has worked pretty closely with Insight Education over the last few years, and a lot of their work involves working with pre-university students around the world, which makes online tuition increasingly invaluable. Eli Keren from Insight gave us a masterclass in using Skype and Scribblar to teach subjects from Literature to Chemistry.

Certainly in Edinburgh, there’s a prevailing view that some subjects are really tough to teach if you can’t do it in person, especially if they involve a lot of diagrams or calculations. But I think Eli managed to make several converts to Scribblar’s online whiteboard system!

Private tutors come from a range of different backgrounds. As a tutor yourself, you studied Law at Durham University before receiving your LLM in International Law from the University of Edinburgh.

You’ve also worked in a range of different industries, including technical theatre, construction law and employment consultancy. What advantages do tutors from a ‘non-teaching’ background have to offer students over those who have worked in the classroom?

Obviously it’s important for tutors to understand the education systems they’re teaching in, so tutors from a ‘non-teaching’ background always do need to do their homework before they try and impose it on other people!

But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for tutors with a broad range of experience in different contexts: it gives them a wide range of tools to keep students enthusiastic about a subject even when their strengths and interests lie elsewhere. I love working with tutors who come from unusual or unexpected backgrounds – they often see their subjects from a different angle, and I think that shines through in their teaching.

Being based in Edinburgh, how does the tutoring industry in Scotland differ from that of the rest of the UK? In my experience, there’s very little information or statistics about the industry in Scotland, do you share this experience?

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Chartered psychologist Aicha Reid talks about the symptoms and effects of dyslexia and ADHD

Hah – yes. Certainly compared with the south of England, there’s not nearly as much interaction between individual tutors in Scotland. Partly that’s because there are fewer of us spread across a wide area, and partly it’s because there aren’t many opportunities for tutors to meet up, swap contact details and work out how they can help each other.

But then, there’s great scope for networking and industry events in Scotland like “Teaching Outside the Classroom”, and since we really enjoyed ourselves this time around – well, watch this space!

What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a private tutor and working in the industry?

First of all, get to know the qualifications and exams in your subject. They’re updated so frequently that you do need to get a handle on what’s being taught and assessed, every academic year. Emphasise your communication skills, because in one-to-one tuition, especially with students lacking confidence, it’s imperative that you be really approachable and easy to talk to.

When you get started, do make sure to chat to every student’s parents if you possibly can – after all, they know their sons and daughters best, and can give you a lot of pointers that the children may not have thought to mention. Touching base with the parents can often make the difference between tutoring being helpful and changing a student’s entire experience of a subject.

In your opinion, what makes a good private tutor? What qualities do you need to have to be successful in the industry?

Tutors are often quite focused on their qualifications, but I think an underrated quality that we’re always looking for is the ability to get students really enthusiastic about their subject. That could involve all sorts of things, from great communication with students and parents, to the ability to bring extra information, texts and new innovations to students’ attention – you never know what it is that’s going to spark their imaginations.

If you can keep your wits and excitement about you in the face of a teenager who’s terrified about their upcoming exams, then you’re going to be a much more successful tutor than someone who’s equally academically gifted but who won’t dare deviate from the nearest specimen paper.

What does the future hold for the private tutoring industry in the UK? How do you see the industry developing over the next few years?

In a nutshell, I think it’s going to get bigger, more diverse, and a whole lot more international. The more tutors can come together now and pool our wealth of resources, the more we will all be able to make the most of the new opportunities on the horizon.

To find out more about Athena Tuition in Edinburgh and to keep up to date with their events, visit their website at

Headshot photographer, Kevin Percival.

  • Athena Tuition Scotland
  • Fiona Barnett
  • The Tutors' Association
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