Advice for your one-to-one tuition programme

Written by: Susannah Hardyman | Published:
Photo: iStock

One-to-one tuition has always been an intervention used in schools, increasingly so since the introduction of the Pupil Premium Susannah Hardyman offers some best practice advice

One-to-one tuition is often described as the oldest form of teaching, dating back at least as far as Ancient Greece.

Yet this ancient practice has in recent years had a major resurgence, with an estimated one in four students now having a private tutor at some point during their secondary school career, according to the Sutton Trust.

Media stories abound of parents guarding their best tutor’s contact details fiercely, taking their tutors on holiday and paying hundreds of pounds for the very top so-called “super tutors”. All of this seems to be geared towards giving their children a competitive edge in today’s modern world.

Not surprisingly, the cost of tutoring and the growth in the industry has raised concerns that it is an expensive commodity available only to those that can afford it. This is putting those from disadvantaged backgrounds even further behind their better off peers.

In light of this, many schools have begun to seek out ways of making tutoring and all the benefits that one-to-one or small group support can bring available to a wider range of students. The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit also highlights this as a potentially effective approach for closing the attainment gap.

Some are using their Pupil Premium funding to pay for private tutors through agencies, others are using in-house teachers or teaching assistants, and some have turned to charities and social enterprises offering tutoring programmes, often through structured volunteer models.

The evidence base for the benefits of tutoring is strong, but inevitably how the programme is structured and delivered can make a huge difference to its success.

I work for a charity that uses volunteer tutors to support schools and pupils and over the last few years we have built partnerships with more than 60 schools around the country. Drawing on reflections from our organisation’s development, as well as hearing many stories from schools about how they are using tutoring generally, I share here a few tips that I think lie at the heart of ensuring a tutoring programme runs successfully.

Target pupils carefully

One of the criticisms of private tutoring is that it is often not very focused. When I worked as a private tutor I encountered many pupils who clearly either did not need help as they were doing extremely well already, or who I came to far too late – by which point it was entirely unrealistic to think that in the time available they could make the progress required before their exams. Think carefully about who really needs the help and whom it is likely to benefit. Then make sure you are allowing enough time to work with them to have an impact.

Aim of the tutoring

What is the aim of the tutoring; where are you trying to get the pupils? I think tutoring works best when it is targeted at a very specific goal, be it a looming exam or to catch up on expected progress. Again, a criticism of the private tutoring industry is that parents sometime use tutors indefinitely, with the tutor becoming a “crutch” for the pupils rather than gearing them to be able to work independently or to support with a specific need and aim.

Communicating the goal to the pupils themselves is of course vital too, so that they understand the purpose of the tuition.

Engaging and enrolling pupils

So you have identified your target pupils and you know where you are aiming to get them, the next step is to engage them. How you do this can depend hugely on the age and motivation of the group of pupils and when the tutoring is taking place. It is really crucial that the pupils have bought into the idea of having a tutor, particularly if it is outside of regular school hours.

Explaining clearly to them why they have been selected, how it will benefit them, where you are trying to get them and incentivising them to attend in some way can all help.

Focusing on positive messages so they do not view being selected as something negative is of course important: “You’ve been selected because we really believe you have the potential to get these grades if you work hard”, is far more motivating than, “you’ve been selected because you’re falling behind”.

We have found that speaking to pupils beforehand, giving them a chance to ask questions and getting them to sign an agreement with their tutor or even to complete an application to be on the programme can all help ensure their commitment.

Even more valuable has been having pupils who took part in the programme previously come and share their success stories with the new cohort, to motivate them on a peer-to-peer level. Engagement doesn’t just happen at the beginning but has to be on-going – can you offer rewards or incentives for regular attendance or particular effort?

School-tutor relationship

This point will depend entirely on where you are sourcing your tutors from, but even assuming they are knowledgeable and experienced working with young people, giving the tutors some kind of training or briefing session on your context and your pupils can help them get things off to a really focused start.

One of the things that bothered me working as a private tutor was the lack of communication with the pupils’ teachers. Teachers have a wealth of knowledge and data about their pupils, so to ensure the tutor can really hit the ground running and focus on the right areas, it makes sense for there to be communication between tutor and teacher as far as possible, to ensure that the input from both is together pulling in the right direction for the pupil.

Pupil-tutor relationship

Inevitably in an intense one-to-one or small group working environment the relationship of the tutor and tutee also matters hugely. Some organisations do matching events prior to the tutoring beginning, or try and match strategically on the basis of information about both parties.

Personality is of course important, but generally we have found that, whatever the background of the tutor, the most important factors pupils are looking for are someone who’s knowledgeable, in control of the session, is friendly and will listen to their needs. Age, sex, race and profession have been far less important than we might have thought. If the relationship’s really not working after a couple of sessions though, it is often worth re-allocating the groups where possible.


Regularity and consistency matter hugely to ensure there are no logistical hiccups. Clarify the timings and dates carefully – check for clashes with things like school trips and ensure other subjects aren’t trying to work with your selected pupils at the same time.

Particularly as exams get closer and more and more subjects are putting on extra revision, it is really important to communicate across the school to make sure pupils are not being pulled in conflicting directions.

Ensuring there is a regular contact for the pupils and tutors to liaise with each week and who can follow up on any issues is vital. Someone ultimately has to own the programme, even if other members of staff are supporting it.

Comfortable space

Sometimes it is necessary to use regular classrooms but a different learning environment can create a more relaxed space in which to learn and make the tutoring seem less like additional school work. School libraries, IT rooms or even the canteen/dining area can all work. Snacks and drinks work wonders at encouraging attendance, can help to keep concentration up, and help you to get away from the session feeling like just another class.

Monitoring and evaluating

Assuming your tutoring programme has a clear target, how are you going to know you are on track to reaching the goal? Importantly, how can you ensure this is not just monitored by the school and tutor, but is shared with the pupil to encourage and motivate them?


As is generally the rule with project-management, the key to success lies significantly in the planning and set-up of the tutoring programme. Invest time in getting the structures right, the target group clarified, initial communication and pupil engagement, and outline clearly the monitoring plan. Failure to do this can result rapidly in disengaged pupils and low attendance, which gets increasingly difficult to pull back.

The up-front time investment is more than worth it once the programme starts (hopefully smoothly) and you begin to see successful relationships forming, regular attendance, progress being made, and then, hopefully, the results!

  • Susannah Hardyman is the CEO of Action Tutoring, an educational charity working in partnership with schools to deliver English and maths tuition to Pupil Premium students preparing for GCSEs using a structured volunteer model. Visit

Further information

Teaching and Learning Toolkit’s one-to-one tuition research (Education Endowment Foundation):


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