Attainment gaps between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their classmates exist in countries worldwide with concerns that school closures due to Covid-19 will exacerbate inequalities further. In England a recent analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggested that the attainment gap is likely to be growing significantly while schools are closed for most pupils.
As countries across the world grapple with this problem, attention has turned to tutoring, with evidence suggesting its effectiveness and its implementation model meaning it can be targeted to those pupils who need it the most.
On January 12th, the EEF hosted an international event to share insights from England’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) and to find out about similar ideas in the Netherlands and the United States. Here we consider five challenges that all catch up programmes are likely to face, what needs to be in place to successfully roll out new programmes, and how they can be integrated into a system to form a sustained rather than transient response.
How are other countries responding to the challenge of Covid learning loss?
The EEF invited a team from Brown University, led by Professor Susanna Loeb and Professor Matt Kraft, as well as a team from VU University, Amsterdam led by Melanie Ehren, Professor of Educational Governance.
Kraft and his colleague Grace Falken recently published a working paper that outlines a thought experiment on how tutoring could be scaled nationally. The vision in the paper is for tutoring to become a core feature of the US education system, rather than just being a short-term response to Covid. Loeb leads the National Student Support Accelerator, providing tools for organisations that want to deliver tutoring, and setting up six tutoring test sites to test different models of tutoring and understand barriers to implementation and drivers of success.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the Dutch government has funded a two-year programme of additional support for students in primary, secondary and vocational schools. Schools can provide support in different ways, but with the intention that support is provided in addition to the school day and that a large proportion of the funding will be spent on tutoring. The team from VU University Amsterdam is working to evaluate the programme and learn more about which of the approaches chosen by schools are most successful.
It will be interesting to monitor developments in these initiatives over this year, with England’s effort likely to be able to learn from the roll out of these programmes. However, there are already a number of lessons to draw from these global efforts.
Challenge 1: Ensuring that efforts do not inadvertently widen attainment gaps
Any response to school closures needs to ensure that current inequalities do not result in unequal access to any catch up offers.
Access to tutoring is often limited to the schools and parents that can most afford it. It is estimated that around 80% of disadvantaged pupils currently do not have access to quality tuition. Before tutoring can be part of the solution, we therefore need to ensure that supply is available across the country – growing the supply of high-quality tutoring and directing it to those pupils who need it the most.
A current success of the NTP is that we are seeing schools from Northumberland to Cornwall accessing tutoring, utilising tutors on the ground for face-to-face provision along with online tutoring to provide more tutors to geographically hard to reach areas. Growing local supply will need to remain as a key priority in England, providing schools and pupils across the country with a legacy of trained tutors that are grounded within local communities.
Challenge 2: Ensuring fidelity to the things that matter
When implementing catch up strategies we need to be clear about both the non-negotiables required for positive impacts, and the flexibilities that require the input of teacher expertise.
Tutoring will only have a positive impact if it is high-quality and the evidence base informs us about the features required to make it a success. From the evidence we know the critical features: training for tutors; close collaboration with schools and alignment to the curriculum; sessions delivered over a sustained period with the same tutor; and delivery at school (to ensure coordination with teachers and regular attendance by pupils). These elements were all considered when Tuition Partners were initially selected and will be monitored throughout the programme.
Challenge 3: Maintaining quality at scale
Reaching all the pupils that require catch up will always be challenging – enough supply of any programme or approach needs to be secured, while also ensuring quality as programmes grow.
The NTP will reach up to 250,000 pupils over the 20/21 academic year, with this number representing a large scale-up of high-quality tutoring targeted at disadvantaged pupils. However, more children will need to be reached in the future and with any increase to scale comes challenges around quality.
Starting smaller, implementing processes to monitor quality, and making improvements prior to further scaling is a process that is likely to support the success of any catch-up programme.
Challenge 4: Continuing to learn and improve throughout delivery
Ideas should never remain static and we can always learn how to improve delivery. Any catch-up programme should not try to reinvent the wheel and should be informed from the start by the existing evidence base. However, large-scale programmes are also great opportunities to update what we know.
The first year of the NTP will be independently evaluated by a consortium of NFER, Kantar and the University of Westminster. The evaluation aims to quantify the overall impact of the Tuition Partners pillar on pupil attainment and will look at how this varies by different types of tutoring, pupil, and school characteristics. The evaluation will also explore the experiences of schools, tutors, and pupils in order to improve the delivery of similar programmes in the future.
Challenge 5: Integrating new ideas into an existing system
New policies can often be short-term in nature and programmes may be buffeted by external events. When addressing the impacts of school closures it is important that we recognise this is a challenge that will be around for some time to come and that we need to plan for a sustained and integrated response that complements, rather than supplants, any existing supports.
The NTP will provide important additional support for pupils this academic year, however it is not a standalone solution. Catch-up approaches therefore need to form a longer-term part of the system, alongside other investments in education to ensure quality first teaching for all pupils.
There is no quick fix for the negative effects of school closures and this is something the education sector will need to work on for years to come. Every country in the world is facing the same challenges and learning from global efforts is critical if we are to ensure that the lives of children will not be blighted in the long-term. In this time of crisis there is the real opportunity to make changes to the education system for the long-term, challenging inequalities that existed before the pandemic, but which must not continue to persist after it ends