James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, looks at the government’s new National Tutoring Programme, why it’s necessary, and why evidence shows that tutoring works.
The past three months have been an extraordinary time for everyone, and certainly for those working in education. From the digital divide to free school meals, the coronavirus pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on the inequalities that exist in our society, particularly those that affect the poorest families. Teachers, heads and parents have worked incredibly hard to compensate for the disruption to children’s schooling, and we have seen inspiring initiatives, from the Oak National Academy to Marcus Rashford’s emotive and successful appeal to provide free school meals over the summer holidays.
For anyone interested in social mobility, a major concern since schools closed has been the widening of the attainment gap between poorer and better off pupils. Our sister charity the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)’s latest evidence review found that ten years of progress in closing the gap could be reversed because of the recent closures. Our own research has shown that while schools are out, private school pupils are twice as likely to take part in weekly online lessons than those in state schools, and even within the state sector there is huge variability in provision and engagement. Schools serving the poorest communities face additional challenges to home schooling, from students’ access to technology and a quiet space to work, to parental confidence in supporting learning. Education may be the key to unlocking future opportunities, but there is a real risk that young people from the poorest background are falling behind further and faster.
Addressing such an unprecedented set of circumstances requires action on many fronts. Lots of ideas have been on the table, all with merit – from summer schools, to free laptops to getting students back to school as soon as possible. Our view has always been that any solution needs to be evidence based, practical and sustainable – it will take a concerted approach to redress the gap widening of the last few months, let alone to chip away at the stubborn inequalities that existed pre-lockdown.
A long-term policy ask of the Sutton Trust’s has been around funding a sustainable programme to widen access to tutoring. Tuition is a cost-effective way of boosting attainment and ensuring disadvantaged pupils do not fall behind, with the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit suggesting it can boost progress by up to 5 months. Access to tutoring, however, is highly unequal: our most recent polling shows that a third of pupils from better off backgrounds have received private tuition, compared to less than 20% of those from the poorest homes.
This is why we’ve been working behind the scenes to support the establishment of the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), a government-funded initiative to offer high-quality tuition through schools, so that additional support can be provided to pupils who have missed out the most. Working with the EEF, Impetus, Nesta and Teach First we have proposed an evidence-based programme that will significantly ramp up high-quality tutoring in the short term and leave a positive, long term legacy.
The programme is intended to work through two pillars.
First, NTP Partners will harness the expertise of existing high quality tutoring organisations, allowing schools to access heavily subsided tuition for their pupils from providers which will be subject to quality control and evaluation standards.
The second strand, NTP Academic Mentors, will see graduates and others trained to provide intensive catch-up support for pupils. These tutors will be employed by schools in the most disadvantaged areas, and will work with pupils most in need of support in small groups, bringing extra capacity into the system for schools to deploy as they see fit.
Our approach is a collaborative one and is driven by quality – which means that the tutoring must be linked back to and driven by what happens in the classroom. It is teachers and school leaders who know their schools best, and the NTP is designed so that their judgement in determining which tutoring approach to use, and for which pupils, is absolutely central.
The NTP has huge potential. Through an extraordinary collaboration of teachers, charities, tutors, schools and parents, that potential can be fulfilled and help not only to address the educational consequences of coronavirus, but to be something positive and lasting that emerges from these troubled times.