Does the National Tutoring Programme still have a point?

Concerns about the NTP are legitimate, writes Ben Gadsby, but letting heads spend the funds without accounting for how threatens the whole programme

Concerns about the NTP are legitimate, writes Ben Gadsby, but letting heads spend the funds without accounting for how threatens the whole programme

21 May 2022, 5:00

As a big believer in tutoring, I’m sad that the troubles of the past year leave my titular question being asked. At Impetus, we believe that the national tutoring programme has the potential to be a game-changing, once-a-decade reform in terms of closing the attainment gap.

We worked with our sister charity EEF to put together a plan for what became the NTP. We partly funded an early pilot to test whether online tutoring was viable during school closures. And we supported EEF with the first year of delivery under the testing circumstances of the pandemic.

Clearly, over the past year or so things have not gone well for the NTP with less tutoring happening than hoped, and schools complaining of complexity. This has led to recent moves to end the contract with Randstad and to give schools a greater say regarding spending.

But the point of the NTP was never just to give money directly to schools; there are far easier ways to do that. It was never the point because it was never going to work. And that’s because of a fundamental underlying problem with tutoring, particularly quality tutoring: it’s simply not available everywhere that it’s needed.

Tackling these cold spots wasn’t the only thing NTP was originally designed for. Ministers set a sensible target for 65 per cent of the pupils who benefit from the NTP to be those who need it most – those eligible for pupil premium.

How do you combine a system where schools have more freedom over how to spend the money (which is what they’ve asked for) with one that gives ministers the ability to actually drive an agenda forward? This is where accountability comes in.

Accountability is never popular, but it is necessary

Accountability is never popular, but it is necessary. To be fair, anything that is badly implemented is never popular, and too often, data is reduced to league tables and rankings devoid of nuance and story. But proper accountability isn’t league tables; it’s data-informed conversations.

So Nadhim Zahawi is right to want to see more data on what schools are doing with their NTP money. It’s right that people ask questions about whether schools are making the right decisions for their pupils. And it’s also right that the people asking the questions listen to the answers from school leaders! Data means nothing without context.

There are things we need to know if NTP is to do the work it was set up to do. What percentage of the million or so pupils reached by NTP this year are eligible for pupil premium? Which types of school have been struggling to access the current NTP offer? How much money is being spent through the “schools-led” route on tuition agencies that didn’t meet the quality threshold to become official tuition partners?

This is a specific case of a bigger general issue. The government is ultimately accountable to the public for education and wants to make stuff happen, not just on NTP. But schools want freedom to not do that stuff. This tension underpins a lot of schools’ frustration with NTP, such as the desire to have more flexibility about group sizes.

And these debates end up distracting us from a simple truth: tutoring is one of the best-evidenced education interventions around. If it was more widely available, more schools would use it and NTP has the potential to be a reform of generational importance for closing the attainment gap.

Ultimately, for NTP to meet this lofty ambition it needs to win back the hearts and minds of the profession. This is the central challenge for the DfE and whoever is selected to replace Randstad delivering the three NTP contracts.

This effort must start with a determination to resolve schools’ legitimate concerns so that NTP can deliver as efficiently as possible for them and their pupils.

But this can’t be at the expense of founding principles like pupil premium requirements. Otherwise, what is the point of the NTP at all?

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