Tutoring: Hitting the target but missing the point?

Written by: Nick Brook | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The government has pledged to deliver tutoring for six million pupils by 2025. But with dwindling subsidies, Nick Brook says that ministers could well find themselves hitting the target, but missing the point

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

Revolution, The Beatles (1968)

A month ago, I found myself sat in the main hall of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester listening to a discussion on the government’s flagship National Tutoring Programme (NTP). It was peppered with references to a “tutoring revolution” in schools.

I’m all for a tutoring revolution. How could you argue with an ambition that every child, in every school, in every part of the country should have easy access to high-quality tutoring as and when needed, irrespective of family wealth or background? This is a worthy ambition. It’s just not one I hear articulated often enough.

The NTP is more often portrayed as a short-term sticking plaster – to provide an initial boost to support education recovery, rather than being seen as an attempt to fundamentally change the education landscape.And right now, in schools, I’m not getting the sense that revolution is coming.

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan

To achieve a permanent shift in the education landscape requires design. Left to chance I simply don’t believe it will happen. Instead, what we’ve seen is a highly ambitious target set – of reaching six million pupils with tutoring programmes by 2025 (DfE, 2021).

And there-in lies the problem. Given the profile of tutoring, there will be considerable political pressure on Department for Education (DfE) to hit this target. Plans and activity could easily become overly focused on increasing through-put, rather than focused on the design and build of a sustainable new tutoring landscape. In doing so, government could well find itself hitting the target, but missing the point.

For example, at present, too much emphasis appears to be focused on a quick-fix solution of redeploying teaching assistants to deliver tutoring. Yet for tutoring to help narrow the achievement gap it must be in addition to existing efforts. Simply expecting teaching assistants to become tutors suggests that they will need to stop what they are currently doing. Apart from greatly undervaluing the work they already do, substituting one activity for another is unlikely to shift the dial far. Additionality of tutoring activity is key to overall success.

I would love to see a plan focused on mobilising and re-engaging former teachers in education. There are, astonishingly, 400,000 people in this country of working age and with qualified teacher status who are currently not working in schools – even more if you include recently retired colleagues.

We know there are many reasons why people leave teaching, and some of those people would never be enticed back. But many would find part-time work as a tutor an attractive proposition and good use of their professional expertise.

Many of them will already be familiar to our schools, our children, and our communities. With a tutoring profession sitting alongside the teaching profession, losing colleagues from teaching shouldn’t automatically mean that we must lose them from education.

But building a new tutoring profession will take effort – to promote the opportunity to those that have left, to build professional learning communities and networks, to share knowledge of what works between the professionals within it. This requires a plan.

You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re doing what we can

This year, schools are asked to contribute around 25 per cent to the costs of tutoring sessions, and unless current funding plans change, this will rise to 50 per cent from 2022 and 90 per cent by 2023.

Schools are struggling to find the 25 per cent contribution this year, given funding shortfalls elsewhere and budgets that were set well before tutoring subsidies were announced. School budgets are stretched. School leaders are doing all they can in very difficult circumstances to respond to needs and balance their budgets.

Many schools will simply not have the resources available to fund this or will look at the reporting requirements attached to the diminishing amount of subsidy available and decide it is not worth the effort. For those schools that want to provide tutoring, it will disincentivise the use of more expensive qualified teachers, despite all the evidence suggesting that they have the greatest impact. It will encourage substitution, not additionality of activity.

Without a rethink on subsidy, the revolution risks coming to a screeching halt.

  • Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Read his previous SecEd articles via https://bit.ly/seced-brook

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