Amid criticism of NTP funding rules – with home tutoring disallowed and restricted to one subject per pupil – Becky Francis says it’s a generational opportunity to close the gap

The days keep getting shorter, but news of three potential Covid-19 vaccines has provided welcome cheer. The emphasis in early coverage has been on efficacy ̶ one vaccine showed a 70 per cent protection rate, the others over 95 per cent.

But for a group of health researchers at Yale, efficacy is not enough. Just as important is implementation. It’s not only about whether the vaccine works; it’s about production speed, the logistics of distribution, and above all, fostering enthusiasm and uptake among the public.

This approach could not be more relevant to the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), which the Education Endowment Foundation is helping to establish with a group of other charities and the Department for Education.

There is extensive evidence that shows us that tutoring is an effective way to boost learning. As a result, there has been global interest in using tutoring to support school children affected by the pandemic. Efforts to scale up tutoring are under way from Australia to the United States, Botswana to the Netherlands.

But while overall tutoring is clearly a “good bet”, just as with the vaccine, decisions about implementation really matter. In short, it’s not whether schools use tutoring that matters, it’s how it is used that will be vital to both its short- and long-term success.

Just as with the vaccine, decisions about implementation really matter

One important decision is about where tutoring takes place. Past evidence suggests that tutoring delivered during the school day will have the greatest impact. In particular, we know pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have the necessary technology at home for effective tutoring to take place. That’s why we’ve suggested that where possible, tutoring takes place with pupils in schools, even if the tutor is online.

However, clearly introducing a new service during a pandemic requires compromises, and we’ve sought to build these in. In a range of circumstances (for example, if pupils cannot be in school) delivery at home will be better than missing out. Wherever possible, NTP providers are currently working to put the processes in place to accommodate this, even if in-school tutoring remains the default.

Another decision is about how much tutoring to offer. Should tutoring be offered on a per-hour basis, for maximum flexibility, or in a different way? We’ve suggested that tutoring is provided in blocks of 15 sessions, typically focused on a single subject – though in some cases these can be split, for example combining literacy and numeracy support for year 6 pupils. This decision is based on evidence that a focused block of sessions, with clear objectives tied tightly to the curriculum, is likely to be most impactful.

The NTP is designed to be a tool for teachers and in lots of other areas  – such as which pupils are selected for tutoring, which year groups receive support and which areas tutors focus on  – teachers and school leaders are best placed to decide. To inform these decisions, and show our workings on the questions above, we’ve published an evidence guide for schools on the NTP website.

The Sutton Trust’s 2017 Extra Time report concluded that “the parental arms race in England in the form of home tuition appears to be increasing”. They and many others have shown that tutoring currently widens rather than narrows the disadvantage gap. The NTP is our chance to reverse this. It represents a huge opportunity to support disadvantaged students and their schools, and has the potential not just to support the educational response to the pandemic but to make a long-term contribution to the effort to close the disadvantage  gap.

This year, we are on track to support up to 250,000 pupils in every region of the country. But if we can get the design of the programme right, attending to the details of implementation and learning and adapting along the way, the NTP has the potential to benefit many, many more.