Catch-up sessions from vetted providers under the government's national tutoring scheme should primarily be delivered online, according to a major organisation advising on the plans.
And the government's National Tutoring Programme (NTP) should have the "flexibility built in" to allow approved providers to deliver sessions "100 per cent online" in case of further lockdowns, according to The Tutors' Association (TTA).
But Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, warned there was a "danger" that children without internet access would miss out if all catch-up sessions were online.
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Last month, the government announced £350 million for the NTP as part of its "Covid catch-up plan".
It is intended to increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged pupils to prevent the attainment gap widening and will have two parts: NTP Partners and NTP Coaches.
The TTA - a "professional membership body for tutoring" -is advising on the former, which will give schools access to "heavily subsidised tuition" from an approved list of vetted providers.
Asked what proportion of tutoring from vetted providers should be delivered online, the TTA said: "The view of the association is that it should be – online should be the primary delivery mechanism. And should schools reopen safely, regional will be possible.
"Our argument is that we should be prepared for it to be 100 per cent online, should there be another lockdown between now and the end of the next school year. But obviously if it can be done face-to-face, then any mix is possible."
The association continued: "There is less evidence about online education delivered in schools, but we've been very clear that this is 'Operation Catch Up' – it is absolutely possible that in the next academic year schools could close again.
"We must make sure that Operation Catch Up does not get locked down with lockdown. And for that reason, having the online capacity to make sure that we could keep on going...is important."
But Dr Bousted said: "Online learning is a highly specialised field and there has been lots of it going on, but we would need to have an evaluation of how much learning actually took place [during lockdown] and what types of learning.
"All this online learning has been done really quickly but how much of it is good? The Open University says it takes 100 hours to produce one good hour of online learning content.
"Around 700,000 children and young people don't have any digital access [at home] so the danger is if it's all online how are those children and young people who need it most actually going to get access?
"The other thing is that if most children and young people are in school are they likely to access online tutoring in their own time? You would have to ask a question about that."
Following a two-week consultation period with its members, the TTA estimates that the NTP funding will cover 1-3 million hours of catch-up tuition from vetted providers per year, depending on group size and the allocation of funding.
And it believes the sector could "comfortably" meet demand by September.
"There had been suggestions in the press that the tutoring sector might not be able to handle the volumes and we set out to investigate these claims," the TTA said.
"To support our efforts, we conducted a survey of our membership and held consultations with key industry partners.
"The survey had 100 responses from tutoring companies, representing some 13,000 tutors between them."
From the investigation, incorporating both the survey and consultation, the TTA found that:
- There is currently 66 per cent spare capacity in the tutoring sector that the schools could use to support Operation Catch Up.
- The sector could comfortably increase its total capacity to 100 per cent by September ready for the scheme. This is because many companies slowed down interviews during lockdown and the closure of schools.
The association added: "Our conclusion is that the tutoring sector does have the capacity to need the full demands of NTP using experienced, professional tutors alone.
"Experienced, professional tutors should be prioritised in the delivery of one-to-one and small group tuition."
An NTP spokesperson said: "We expect a mixture of online, face-to face-and hybrid models to play a part in the NTP next year.
"The EEF is currently piloting different models of online tuition. These findings will add to the evidence base underpinning the NTP and will help inform our work through our delivery partners."
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.