Why we need a national tutoring service

Research suggests that disadvantaged pupils could fall as much as six months behind their peers as a result of school closures. Could a national tutoring service be a solution to the problem?
15th May 2020, 12:01pm
Lee Elliot Major, Emily Tyers and Robin Chu


Why we need a national tutoring service

National Tutoring Service

Hard times can inspire collective action to improve the prospects of the most disadvantaged in society. After the Great Depression in the 1930s, US volunteers tutored underprivileged youth across the country. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the welfare state was established, introducing universal education for all children.

Now, in the wake of the Covid-19 school closures, we have a historic opportunity to establish a national tutoring service (NTS). The service would help improve the achievement of disadvantaged pupils in the core subjects of English and maths. 

All pupils, wherever they live, should be able to benefit from one-to-one tutoring. Thousands of teacher trainees, undergraduates and graduates are ready to volunteer.

Research suggests that the Covid-19 learning slide could result in disadvantaged pupils falling behind their peers by as much as six months. One-to-one tutoring is one of the few catch-up approaches backed by consistent evidence. Trials show undergraduate tutoring can lead to an extra three months' progress during the school year.

National tutoring service

Since we shared our proposals for an NTS with the government, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response from teachers, students and charities. 

Following discussions with ministers, charities are set to launch pilots to evaluate different online one-to-one tuition models. Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, has called for "a volunteer army" of graduates to tutor and mentor pupils at risk of falling behind.

We believe the government could eventually help to promote the NTS across the country, developing materials for all universities to disseminate. The government might suggest that pupil premium funds be used by schools (and colleges) for the service. A quick win would be mobilising teacher trainees as early September 2020. PGCE students could tutor pupils during their school placements if these still go ahead.

The NTS would capitalise on a coalition of tutoring charities, social enterprises and private providers already delivering programmes in many places. These include Action Tutoring, the Access Project, CoachBright, Get Further, IntoUniversity, Literacy Pirates, Peer Tutor, the Tutor Trust and the Tutorfair Foundation, as well as social mobility charities including the Brilliant Club, Brightside and OxFizz. Most organisations are now planning online programmes for when schools open, given the likelihood that external visitors will not be allowed for some time.

External evaluations to assess the effectiveness of different models of tutoring will be needed, building on the work of the Education Endowment Foundation. These would assess the best ways of working with schools and colleges for pupils at different ages, the impact of online and face-to-face approaches, of tutoring both inside and outside the school day, of paying tutors or relying on volunteers. A key goal will be ensuring minimum standards are met for pupils across the country. Regional plans will be needed to think through how the NTS might work in the South West, for example.

But with enough government backing, a national tutoring service could become a lasting positive legacy of the Covid-19 crisis for social mobility, boosting tutoring capacity in areas of the country where it is needed, potentially supporting hundreds of thousands of pupils. We believe it could help to level up education's uneven playing field.

Lee Elliot Major is professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter; Emily Tyers is a teacher of human science at Ivybridge Community College; Robin Chu is CEO of CoachBright

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