The creation of a £350 million National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to help schools in England tutor disadvantaged pupils follows a groundswell of support for the idea that we floated publicly nearly three months ago.
Huge credit goes to the coalition of charities – the Education Endowment Foundation, the Sutton Trust, Impetus and Nesta – which I know have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make this happen.
This initiative, part of a £1 billion catch-up programme, won’t solve education inequality by itself or replace core classroom teaching. But, as I mentioned to MPs last week, it’s an idea whose time has come.
Doubtless, the details of the support package will generate much debate and discussion. How will it ensure consistent standards and safeguarding? How will it ensure that support is targeted at the regions, schools and pupils who most need it?
Concerns have already been raised that the package doesn’t extend to 16- to 18-year-olds.
But it is important to step back and recognise that, for any immediate shortcomings or areas of hazy policy, the service will offer teachers much-needed help during unprecedented times.
Helping disadvantaged pupils to catch up in the coronavirus crisis
Stark findings on home learning have shown how the Covid-19 pandemic is magnifying the attainment gap that has always existed in education.
Pupils with supportive family set-ups and good internet access and who were already excelling at school will have found the past three months hard, of course, but their learning will have suffered relatively little compared with their less privileged peers.
For those on the wrong side of the gap, though, the past three months have been a disaster – and one that could follow them through the rest of their life, condemning them to academic, economic and social failure.
We have to try to address this – to sit around and watch this once-in-a-lifetime disaster rob so many young people of the chance of a proper education and do nothing would have been unthinkable.
So, just as the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s or the Second World War in the UK led to big, nation-state ideas, so too the coronavirus crisis required a big idea with big ambitions. This programme is that idea.
And one grounded in the solid reality that tutoring works.
The power of tutoring
One-to-one tutoring is one of the few education approaches we know works consistently, helping children to catch-up. Of course, the biggest impacts come when it is delivered by trained teachers, but it also can work when delivered through effective charity programmes using undergraduate students.
The beauty of one-to-one is that it is a relatively simple intervention, so it can be scaled up to work in many schools.
Usually, though, research outcomes and economic reality rarely meet. The cost and time of giving all schools the ability to hire tutors to help children catch up would have been unthinkable to all but the most benevolent of governments.
In the world we live in now, though, such an idea has clearly found a home in the heart of government – and rightly so.
Of course, the big question that the idea of bringing in a veritable army of tutors will lead to concerns capacity – chiefly, where will they come from?
Sources to tap
But, as our early work on this proposal outlined, there are ways it can work – from using existing private tutors and charitable tutoring organisations, to asking undergraduate students to deliver lessons remotely, there is perhaps more capacity than we first realise.
We are blessed with many highly effective charities and social enterprises delivering tutoring in different parts of the country. These include Action Tutoring, IntoUniversity, Tutor Trust, CoachBright, the Tutorfair Foundation, and the Access Project among others.
What’s more, the fact that most of this tutoring will be carried out online, at least in the first months of its inception, is no bad thing. It’s great that tutoring models will also be fully evaluated.
For many pupils in remote parts of the country, finding a tutor can be hard. However, if a video call can put them in touch with someone based in London, Exeter, Manchester or indeed anywhere else, then that is to be welcomed.
Some may take umbrage at the idea of tutors, or indeed graduates, being involved in the education of their pupils – it’s understandable, perhaps, that if you have worked years for a qualification only to see some 20-year-old student teach maths to your cohort, you may feel slighted.
But this is not what this is about.
A generational benefit
This is about preventing hundreds of thousands of children facing, through no fault of their own, a future devoid of the same kind of social mobility opportunities that those before them were able to follow thanks to an education that opened their eyes, and minds, to wider horizons.
I don’t claim there won’t be teething problems, but to sit around, debating endlessly without taking action, would have been criminal.
The education sector, which rightly promotes itself so often as putting children’s interests first above all else, should remember that now and throw its collective weight behind the NTP.
Future generations will look back with the same admiration and respect as we do with those before us who put the future of the country first.
Lee Elliot Major is professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter