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Artillery Row

The National Tutoring Programme: the most radical education policy yet?

How will increased 1-on-1 learning fit into the future of education?

Last week the government announced a new £1bn package for schools. £350 million will pay for the establishment of a National Tutoring Programme, which will give schools access to subsidised tutoring sessions. The rest will be spent whichever way headteachers best believe will catch their pupils up on education missed during the pandemic and might itself be put towards further tutoring.

To have the Prime Minister, Education Secretary and many of the UK’s leading educationalists line up to endorse tutoring as both highly effective and urgently required will be a balm to tutors, who are more used to hearing themselves described only as the means by which the rich perpetuate their educational advantage. Few would argue with its potential for transformative impact: the one-on-one setting makes the tutorial a space of radical accountability that can often lead to undreamt-of gains in learning and confidence. (All the tutors I know have testimonials that run along the lines of, “I learnt more in a few lessons with you than I did in a term’s / year’s / years’ worth of lessons at school…”) Thanks to this new initiative, its benefits can finally be brought more to bear on those who need them most.

The acknowledgement of tutoring as a uniquely potent force in education may feel new but is in fact a restitution of its former status

The acknowledgement of tutoring as a uniquely potent force in education may feel new but is in fact a restitution of its former status: long before the advent of classroom learning, most education was conducted via a tutor. Aristotle for Alexander the Great; Alcuin of York for Charlemagne; Roger Ascham for Elizabeth I: these figures are foundational educationalists but their pedagogy far more closely resembles modern tutors than modern classroom teachers. I expect and hope it will lead to a great many more people seeking to commit their professional lives to teaching, only this time as full-time tutors.

What can we hope for next academic year? A sector 250,000 tutors strong stands ready to serve without delay. Many leading companies, alongside the Tutors Association, have already devised tutor-specific training programmes. The onset of the pandemic in March saw tens of thousands of tutors and agencies offer their services at low-cost or free to families in need. Work under the new scheme could begin as soon as the summer.

Much of the programme’s success will thus depend on how the funds are directed and whether those leading it will be able to avoid the British state’s fatal fondness for the mediocre. The tutoring sector has thrived in recent times because it has been dynamic and entrepreneurial, lightly regulated and responsive to both families’ needs and technological development. (Because it has been offering online lessons for over a decade, it was able to pivot to the ‘new normal’ with a swiftness that many schools failed to match.) Can the DfE harness this resourcefulness, or will it fall back on the worn out shibboleths of one-size-fits-all lesson planning, banal and abstracted marking frameworks and other soulless accountability measures that put a lot of tutors off classroom teaching in the first place? That the DfE has already said it is willing to consider tutors without a teaching qualification is a very encouraging early sign.

Based on more than a decade at the heart of UK tutoring, I would urge a few simple considerations. First, as the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility Lee Eliot Major has warned, the DfE should pitch for quality over quantity. This can best be achieved by making online delivery the default method of instruction as requiring tutors to be able to get to schools (especially beyond city centres) will be a surefire way of limiting quality. Prioritising quality, the DfE should acknowledge that an outstanding tutor teaching a small class of up to 5 is much better than a mediocre tutor teaching 1-on-1. I would also be keen to see the DfE looking to integrate the project with some favoured EdTech platforms or Virtual Learning Platforms (such as Oak National Academy, Century Tech, Hegarty Maths and the like) so that tutors can have prior notice of exactly where weak areas are. This might allow more numerous focused sessions of say 20 minutes rather than longer but less focused lessons.

Beyond 2021, however, I wonder whether it will be this initiative rather than the largely unencouraging school innovations tried during the pandemic that will leave the biggest ripples? Pundits and policy-makers have decried the homogeneous ‘19th Century Factory model’ of education for decades but with little to show for their censure. With 1-on-1 and small group online tutoring brought into the mainstream of a school’s spending decisions, variations on ideas akin to the ‘flipped classroom’ finally look achievable as students could be encouraged to read or watch material before class, debate it in class and have access to tutors after class to correct misunderstanding. Increased 1-on-1 and small group lessons may likewise be a fillip to the long-debated voucher system, whereby per-pupil spending and focus can be minutely directed to those most in need of it and parents could be empowered to spend further state-awarded vouchers out of school hours.

In the year that celebrates 150 years since Forster’s Education Act, the first to create compulsory education in England and Wales, it would be poignant if this initiative radically undermined the whole state education edifice built up in the intervening years. Williamson introduced the initiative saying that it will bring ‘long term reform to the educational sector’ and the PM that he hoped it would become ‘a powerful tool for teachers in the years to come’. How right they may turn out to be.

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