Picture: 123RF/DUSANKA VISNJICAN
Picture: 123RF/DUSANKA VISNJICAN

The dirty, little secret of middle-class parenting has been neither dirty, little nor secret for quite a while. Families who can afford tutoring often shell out because they find it delivers results. The proof is a global industry expected to reach $280bn by 2027. 

Now the UK is about to embark on the world’s first large-scale, publicly funded experiment of mass tutoring to support those who cannot afford the privilege. In the coming months, a hastily assembled army of tutors will descend on state-funded schools in Britain seeking to reduce learning gaps widened by the pandemic. It should provide an impetus for rethinking some basic tenets of public education.

Under the UK’s National Tutoring Programme, schools can apply for heavily subsidised tutoring for disadvantaged children between the ages of five and 16. The government has allocated £1bn for a national “catch-up” package for one year, which includes £350m for tutoring. Tutors will be available for schools, in person and online, from November. Pupils will get weekly lessons tailored to subjects they’re struggling in, often in small groups of three, for periods generally up to 15 weeks.

The stakes are high. Britain’s education picture, like America’s, has long been hugely unequal. There are 1.4-million children on free school meals in Britain. By the time they reach 16, poorer students lag their richer peers in attainment, and that continues into adulthood. The pandemic has widened this divide. A Sutton Trust report, out this month, projects substantial negative labour market impacts of school closures on those from less well-off backgrounds, with a hit to social mobility generally.

At-risk children often live in crowded accommodation with less technology and support. Tutors need to find ways around these obstacles

Tutoring alone won’t close this gap, but it can help. In a large randomised control trial of 105 schools published in 2018, The Tutor Trust, a charity working in the north of England, showed improved results in math and reading in just 12 hours of small group tutoring support. (The cost per child was a modest £112.)

Access to individualised learning, however, has long been the  preserve of those who can afford it — and many families stretch budgets to make sure they can. Almost half of pupils in London have had private tutoring; in England and Wales it’s nearly a third. Among ethnic minorities, the usage is even higher. Hourly rates can range from £25 to £90 (or sky’s the limit for super-tutors), with tutor names passed between close friends like a coveted family recipe.

The frenzied educational arms race has an ugly underbelly: at its worst, it can hollow out normal childhood experience, distort school feedback mechanisms, create unnecessary pressure and cause mental health problems. But, done properly, tutoring doesn’t just improve learning outcomes, it also instils confidence, self-awareness and enthusiasm.

In an ideal world, teachers could achieve all this for every child. But we live in the real world. I once regarded tutoring as the equivalent of cheating on an exam. I’ve since become an enthusiast, with some caveats: the intervention should be targeted, the goal realistic and the child willing.

Once you understand the benefits, it’s hard to deny the urgency of getting that kind of support to those who need it most. This isn’t just a moral argument; there’s also a business and economic case. The cost to society of low educational attainment — in terms of unemployment, lost productivity, healthcare outcomes and other areas — is enormous.

The challenge with the UK’s new programme will be getting delivery right and sustaining commitment.

Underpinned by a great deal of evidence, but put together on the fly, the job of overseeing the programme has largely been delegated to five charities, including the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). They’ve had to rapidly vet and co-ordinate a large number of tutoring providers on a tight timeline. Becky Francis, CEO of the EEF charity, says the test will be whether charities can meet demand while ensuring quality. Though a good experience can be a game-changer for students, a bad one can discourage effort and entrench negative self-beliefs.

The education sector’s mistrust of government could also hamper delivery. The schools fund 25% of the tutoring costs, with the government covering the rest. But school administrators will have to devote time and effort to co-ordinate the extra help, liaise with parents and monitor the impact. Many don’t want to embark on something that will be discontinued after a year.

Online tutoring will also be put to the test. At-risk children often live in crowded accommodation with less technology and support. Tutors need to find ways around these obstacles.

If the government wants the programme to succeed, officials should give it a longer timeframe. A year will hardly be sufficient time to reach enough children and learn which practices are effective. Three years is more reasonable. 

The UK also needs to think bigger. Back in April, Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, set out a proposal for a national tutoring service. He suggested recruiting 100,000 university students and graduates to volunteer time to give back to hundreds of thousands of children. In return, they could be offered discounted tuition fees, access to internships and on-campus benefits, not unlike the US AmeriCorps programme.

That makes a lot of sense. Providing low-income children vouchers for tutoring or encouraging pro bono tutoring from private agencies, recommendations from the Sutton Trust, could be other ways to extend the principle.

For the time being, though, the UK’s experiment deserves close watching. It will almost certainly encounter teething problems, but it has the potential to spark some of the social “leveling up” promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That’s something post-Brexit Britain badly needs.

Bloomberg

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