A project to introduce peer-tutoring in year 9

Written by: David Russell | Published:
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Raising the aspirations and attainment of disadvantaged students through peer-tutoring has proven successful at Parkside School. David Russell explains how...

Too often I see students who have the mathematical ability to answer questions give up. It might be that they are scared of saying the wrong answer in front of their peers or that they lack confidence to ask for help – but unchecked this behaviour becomes a habit and over time a big problem.

Often, we impleament intervention strategies or extra support for students in year 11 before they are about to take their exams, but this is ultimately a reactive process and can sometimes be too late. I wanted to be more proactive, to give students the confidence to ask questions and embed a love of learning as soon as possible.

I had the opportunity to do this when I joined Ambition Institute’s Teaching Leaders programme in 2016. As part of the programme I had to complete an impact initiative, focusing on disadvantaged children and aligned to the needs of my school. My first step was to look at my context.

Understanding my context

Parkside School is in a rural location, close to Haworth in West Yorkshire. Our school emerged out of the wide scale reorganisation of education that took place in the Bradford district in 2000.

We serve around 1,000 students and since opening have always been oversubscribed in year 7. Our intake includes students from local towns, villages and farms, a real mix.

Broadly speaking, our students come to us with grades that meet the national average but their progress and outcomes required improvement. Changing this was one of our key priorities, so I knew my initiative needed to focus on this issue, and being a mathematics teacher, it would be focused on attainment in maths.

Like most schools, our support was geared towards year 11 students. Those in lower years had little to no additional support. I wanted to take a proactive approach and so I decided the focus of my initiative would be earlier. I settled on year 9s because I felt a bigger impact could be achieved and also, with the changes to GCSE gradings coming in, I wanted to better prepare our students for what was awaiting them.

To tackle the attainment issue, my objective was to build resilience and embed a culture of learning and confidence among students. I wanted students to become better problem-solvers, too, by developing GCSE derived problem-solving skills.

Looking to research

There are lots of case studies and research available on the subject of attainment and sometimes it is hard to know where to start.

I began by looking at three options: assessment and feedback, tutoring, and peer-tutoring. As a school we were already developing more rigorous processes around assessment and feedback so I crossed that off my list.

The main disadvantage with tutoring was the extra burden on staff. However, the more I researched peer-tutoring, the more I saw that I could have a dual positive effect on my year 9 students and those from a different cohort too.

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) shows that all types of pupils benefit from peer-tutoring, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with previous low attainment (see further information). It also found that peer tutoring is most effectively used to consolidate learning, rather than to introduce new material.

In addition, as some readers will already know, Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning research found that peer-tutoring could provide a two-grade leap in pupils’ GCSE grades (see further information).

However, I was confident that not only would the tutees benefit, but so would the tutors. A National Tutoring Association article on the importance of training peer tutors shows that peer-tutoring usually results in significant cognitive gains for both the tutor and the tutee and that peer-tutoring had a positive impact in the areas of learning, attitude toward subject matter, and self-concept (Ayez, 2014).

Underlining the baseline

A key part of any initiative is tracking the impact and to do so you need to have a baseline. Our school tracking system provides measures on each pupil, including the “Big 4”: students’ attitude to learning, homework, quality and presentation, and “purple for progress” (where students correct their own mistakes and comment on them, showing their next steps).

The marking of each criteria from 1 (good) to 4 (poor) is completed by the teacher at each data collection point, usually four times a year. I was very aware that these grades were subjective and only gave a snapshot in time, but my aim was and remains long-term.

In addition, we conducted a student-friendly questionnaire asking various questions about their problem-solving techniques, such as whether they check that answers make sense, if they make a plan of how they are going to solve the question, or if they used diagrams.

This gave us a clear starting point.

Putting this information into action

I pitched the idea to my deputy head and head of faculty using an Ishikawa diagram also referred to as a Fishbone cause and effect diagram (see online). This helped me gather my thoughts and identify and eliminate any risks. I also shared my research with them explaining what we should expect from the initiative and the benefits it would bring. They both gave me their support and consent to move forward with my plan and idea.

I picked the tutees based on who would most benefit. As such I focused on those students in year 9 who were underperforming and who qualified for the Pupil Premium funding.

My next step was to choose the student tutors. I had agreed that using year 11 would be disruptive, particularly with their GCSE exams just around the corner, so we opted to use year 10 students as tutors. We pitched it as a real development opportunity and chose students who had a good attitude towards learning and who, where possible, were identified as Pupil Premium.

To ensure they were confident in the role I put together a tutor pack listing the benefits of tutoring, not only for the present, but for their futures too, along with resources, hints and tips to use when tutoring.

I wanted the tutors to develop an organic relationship with their tutees and to own their role. My theory was that this would break down some of the intimidation tutees might feel when asking their teachers questions.

The tutoring sessions occurred twice a week during form time and lasted 20 minutes. This gave enough time for pupils to discuss a concept and then practise under the guidance of their tutor.

In the main, I left the students to take charge of the tutoring but oversaw each session to provide guidance and to be on hand if there were any doubts or difficulty.

Impact

The impact we had was two-fold – the tutees’ ability to solve problems increased notably and one of the tutees even asked to become a tutor in the next wave of peer-tutoring. The impact on our tutors was even more outstanding. Not only were they all keen to tutor again, but it inspired three pupils to take on maths at A level. We also saw a huge difference in their GCSE grades – our summer 2018 results showed that those who were tutors on average achieved half a grade higher than their aspirational target grade. I was very proud of them.

Teachers across the school remarked how tutees were starting to challenge themselves and were gaining confidence and asking more questions. One personal highlight was when one colleague remarked that a student was “now unafraid to share her ideas and answers within her table group and class”.

Reflections and next steps

To ensure this impact was not just a coincidence I had to implement the next wave of the initiative with a larger number of students. I also made some small changes to the process using my learnings from the first wave – this included providing tutees with scaffolded questions to support them through their tasks and to build their confidence.

We have now carried out six waves of the initiative and each time make small improvements to the process to ensure it is meeting the needs of our pupils. For example, we recently made some changes when it became evident that students were struggling with arithmetic.

Each wave has seen a similar positive result and it has proved so popular that I am now working with colleagues to embed this initiative into other departments.

  • David Russell is an alumni of Ambition Institute’s Teaching Leaders programme. He has been teaching for 20 years, four of which have been at Parkside School in Cullingworth.

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