Covid tutoring: Why hasn't the magic happened?

How come take-up for the National Tutoring Programme has been so low? Laura McInerney breaks down what's gone wrong
14th January 2022, 2:12pm


Covid tutoring: Why hasn't the magic happened?
Laura McInerney is co-founder of Teacher Tapp

Once upon a time, the government thought the pandemic would only last a few months before we'd skip into a recovery phase and get back on track.

Can't say I blame them. Once upon a time, I felt the same. During this time, the prime minister announced a billion-pound pot to provide millions of England's pupils with "catch-up" support via tutoring.

Given the assumption of a short pandemic, it seemed a solid idea.

After all, private tutoring is a booming industry among families who can afford it, and it can deliver results. So for pupils who'd had months out of school, it was an obvious solution to worries of falling behind.

Now, 18 months later and still amid what feels like a never-ending pandemic, the National Tutoring Programme is floundering.

Department for Education figures reveal that only 302,000 pupils started a tutoring course during the last autumn term - just 15 per cent of the expected target for the year.

Not only is that a challenging target, but the Department for Education's statistics also show that the situation is even more sluggish on take-up than last year.

And almost all of it is being delivered by schools in-house. Only 72,000 courses are being delivered via the National Tutoring Programme coordinated by HR company Randstad.

All of which is likely leaving officials scratching their heads. Why are schools so resistant to using what looks like a huge cash pot to help children catch up?

The devil is in the policy design.

Covid catch-up: Problems with the National Tutoring Programme 

One of the biggest hurdles that schools faced was that anyone a school employed without qualified teacher status had to wait until November last year to complete a lengthy training programme before they could officially start "tutoring".

With more tutors now trained, it's likely the numbers will start to go up, but there are further problems.  

The truth is that while organising tutoring in schools may sound straightforward - "identify the pupils that need support + locate with tutor = magic happens" - there's a lot of onerous logistics sitting behind it that means it's anything but simple.

For example, identifying the pupils most in need of tutoring is more art than science, especially during a period when lockdowns and absences have thrown off usual patterns of development.

Then there's the problem of communicating about the tuition to parents, potentially triggering complaints from sharp-elbowed parents whose children aren't included.

Communicating it to the children, who can sometimes feel they are being labelled as slow or deficient, is also sensitive. As is trying to find the right time in the day for it to happen.

I've known pupils to hide under their desks to evade a tutor trying to withdraw them from a lesson they enjoy.

Before and after-school sessions can be made to work but do come with additional challenges, especially if children travel by scheduled public transport.

Then there's the issue of "locate with tutor". Schools are typically squeezed for space. In normal times, a small group intervention can be jammed into a makeshift office in a cupboard. Under social distancing, finding appropriate physical space is trickier.

Schools have also been rightly fussy about the number of visitors in school to guard against infection, reducing the desire to have tutors in and out.

Obstacles for schools

Finally, what about "magic happens"?

Even this isn't guaranteed. Children in tutoring groups are often more diverse than they seem, with a range of motivations, and they are in specific curriculum programmes.

Bless the tutor who has planned an ambitious session on fractions only to have the kids tell them, "We already did this on Monday with our teacher…and she did it all differently."

In fairness, the DfE has tried to help overcome these issues by giving schools a range of options, including having "academic mentors" or teaching assistants to deliver the tutoring.

But there's a final kicker. The billion pounds of funding from Boris Johnson? It doesn't cover the whole cost. Schools must contribute 25 per cent of the cost. (From next year it goes up to 50 per cent).

The price is just too high in many cases, as Tes has previously reported, and the allocation of the (fiendishly complex) funding came too late for schools to build it into their budgets.

Of course, some schools have made it work: lists devised, spaces found, tutors trained. To those who have made it work, I salute you.

Schools aren't evenly resourced, however. What is manageable in a well-funded city school with multitudes of ancillary staff is often difficult in a small school where two staff are off with long Covid and the nearest trained tutor lives a 20-minute drive away.

In the months to come, I hope the numbers improve because everyone deserves the chance to have their education chances improved after so much disruption, and we know that tutors can work to help boost educational outcomes.

But we also have to be realistic and accept that pledges made when we thought the pandemic would turn out differently are not ones that can be easily kept.

Laura McInerney is co-founder of data organisation Teacher Tapp

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