‘Quality teaching matters more than group size’

12th February 2016 at 00:00
Study suggests specific training for teaching small groups can bring better results than one-to-one tuition

One-to-one tuition is often seen as the best way to raise children’s achievement. But teachers could achieve the same results for a quarter of the price, new research suggests.

In fact, a research review conducted by grant-awarding body the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) shows that the size of the tuition group is less important than whether the group’s tutors are qualified teachers or well-trained volunteers.

In a review of effective intervention projects, the EEF stated: “Groups of three or four pupils can sometimes be as or more effective than either one-to-one or paired tuition.

“Given its lower cost, schools could consider trialling small-group tuition as a first option, before moving to one-to-one tuition, if small-group tuition is ineffective.”

This week, the EEF announced that it would be providing £120,000 of funding to extend a new tuition project to 1,200 pupils across 100 primary schools. Affordable Tuition recruits university students and recent graduates to act as maths and English tutors for pupils in particularly disadvantaged communities.

Abigail Shapiro, one of the founders of the Tutor Trust, which runs Affordable Tuition, said that they offer both one-to-one and small-group tuition. “Originally, headteachers said, ‘Yes, definitely. One-to-one, all the way.’ But what we found when we started working in schools [was that] they were more interested in one-to-two or one-to-three. Maybe it’s cost-effectiveness.”

According to the EEF, one-to-one tuition five days a week over a 12-week term, costs approximately £700 per pupil. The majority of this cost is teaching time. Therefore, the same tuition would cost £350 per pupil in a two-pupil group, and £175 per pupil in a four-pupil group.

Ms Shapiro said that, in some cases, the presence of other pupils in the tuition group could even contribute to the effectiveness of the intervention.

“As long as the groups are well thought through, there can be an element of peer mentoring – people working together,” she said.

“If a tutor is working with two people, and one of them has that light-bulb moment when suddenly it all makes sense, they can then help the tutor explain it to the other person.”

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of EEF, suggested that tuition could be effective even when there were more than three pupils in the group. “Although a general rule of thumb seems to be that smaller groups have bigger impacts, this is by no means definitive,” he said.

In fact, Sir Kevan added, other factors may be even more important than group size. “Studies that have compared both approaches show that it is quality of teaching that matters more than group size,” he said.

This is backed up by EEF research. In its report on effective interventions, it states: “The quality of teaching in small groups may be as or more important than group size, emphasising the value of professional development for tutors. Programmes involving volunteers or teaching assistants can have an impact, but tend to be less effective than those that use experienced and specifically trained teachers.”

But the research also showed that training volunteer tutors can have an impact. For this reason, Ms Shapiro insists that her tutors are given two-and-a-half days of compulsory training.

These sessions cover the basics of pupil behaviour and lesson-planning, as well as subject-specific training, focusing on the curriculum and the difference between a D and a C grade at GCSE.

“Helping other people get a passion and understanding for the subject, and making that into a lesson plan – that’s what training gives you,” Ms Shapiro said. “It might be that you only get through two questions on your worksheet, because a child admits they don’t know their times tables. You have to scrap your lesson plan and start again. Training gives you the confidence to think and plan in that way.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union, is unsurprised that evidence highlights the importance of training. “It’s not just doing it – it’s how you do it that matters,” he said. “I think that’s a lesson we can take to all interventions. We really have to pay attention to the how, as well as the what.”


Tuition tips

One-to-one and small-group tuition are both effective interventions

The majority of costs are for teaching time, so costs to the school decrease as group size increases

Provide training: tuition is significantly more effective if delivered by qualified teachers or by properly trained volunteers

Tuition will have a greater impact if it is explicitly linked to class lessons

Small-group tuition is most effective if targeted at pupils’ specific needs.

Source: Education Endowment Foundation

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