Effective tutoring needs new thinking from school leaders

29 Dec 2020, 5:00

national tutoring programme

Tutoring can transform life outcomes for students – but ensuring the NTP’s success depends on school leaders understanding its unique principles, writes Julia Silver

Good tutoring is a fantastic resource. The improvements it leads to transcend the topics or subjects covered in tutoring sessions, and this spill-over effect can transform a student’s interest in and attitude to learning, as well as their time on task. 

But to make the most of the National Tutoring Programme and to establish a legacy of tutoring in our schools, it will be crucial to establish intent, implementation and impact from the start, and this won’t be on the same terms as schools’ other activities. Crucially, for example, tutoring doesn’t have to be solely outcomes-focused. It can also be about rehabilitation, for example, helping students overcome the anxiety that can easily arise in class, and especially when we’ve fallen behind.

For most, a tutor is needed simply to help a student achieve their best in end-point assessments. In this case, the tutor will need to take the lead in revising curriculum content, rehearsing exam techniques, establishing spaced and retrieval practices and even deciding whether the day before an exam is a day to revise or a day to rest.

But tutoring is effective precisely because one size need not fit all. As Amy Welch, principal at Lambeth Academy put it to me recently, “for some students, tutoring will be the first time they’ve made the connection between effort and attainment”.

Like teachers, tutors know that building confidence leads to better outcomes for students. Confident students will spend more time on task, be more willing to have a go and be able to deploy more of the self-regulatory skills of independent learning.

Unlike teachers though, tutors have the luxury of taking the ‘scenic route’ to establishing that high-challenge, low-threat culture we know all students benefit from. Tutoring tends to create a space to speak and be heard. Students feel able to ask questions they may have been embarrassed to ask in the classroom. They will also have the freedom to enjoy the simple pleasure of ‘talking with’ others one-to-one, or in a small group setting. Those ‘conversational turns’ that we know make a significant difference to language processing and cognitive development come naturally in a tutoring context.

The mentoring element of tutoring should not be underestimated

So the mentoring element of tutoring should not be underestimated. Tutors are primarily role models and ambassadors for learning, and the power of what they do is in its responsiveness. An effective tutor will be constantly assessing and reassessing the students, checking for readiness, for misconceptions and barriers for learning. Similar to a key worker in an Early Years setting, a tutor will facilitate far more than they instruct, with constant feedback and in-the-moment corrections.

Armed with this ongoing stream of information, tutors behave more like a thermostat than like a thermometer, constantly adjusting the pitch and pace of the session to create the optimal learning environment. For that to work, relationships are vital to effective tutoring – even more so than classroom teaching.

With all this in mind, one of the freedoms tutoring affords is the freedom to try a different tutor. A student can’t easily switch teachers, but there are many valid reasons for a student to try a different tutor. Alignment is key and there should be no stigma involved in switching tutors. Taking the time to match a student with the correct tutor is likely to see a lasting change and a transformed student. Though it may feel counter-intuitive to school leaders, time spent trying a new tutor will be far more beneficial than time spent nurturing a relationship that doesn’t work.

A tutor’s job differs in key respects from that of a teacher, and that means school leaders need to think differently to make tutoring effective for their students. Leveraging the opportunity presented by the NTP in the months to come depends on it.


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