The flagship scheme to take tutoring from a preserve of the elite and throw it open to the mainstream was supposed to be a game-changer. Less than 16 months later, that original ambition is slowly crumbling. Schools Week investigates what went wrong …
“We were trying to create the gold standard of the tuition sector,” said Ben Gadsby, policy lead at the charity Impetus.
It was one of five charities tasked with founding the £350 million flagship National Tutoring Programme (NTP) in 2020, the government’s big policy to ensure locked-down pupils caught-up.
It was “incredibly clear” that ministers “wanted to spend more money in a high-impact way,” Gadsby added.
Evidence compiled by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the charity that led the NTP in its inaugural year, shows small-group tuition can boost progress by four months over a year. The big gains were also attached to a “modest” cost.
Reflecting on the set-up, the five founding charities told Schools Week there are “very few teaching and learning approaches that are as proven or as scalable as tutoring.
“This meant we were able to design the programme based on a robust body of evidence, including having strict quality criteria for tutor training, clear processes for monitoring pupil progress and effective communication tools for tutors to liaise with schools,” the charities said.
The key pillar of the NTP would be a tightly controlled approval process – creating a pool of trusted and high-quality “tuition partners” schools could use.
Then education secretary Gavin Williamson said it would mean “every young person… gets the education, opportunities and outcomes they deserve” with measures that are “proven to be effective, particularly for those who are most disadvantaged”.
But less than a year and a half later, that original ambition is in tatters, with schools allowed free rein to organise their own provision, and ministers considering axing the scheme’s current providers – international HR firm Randstad.
So, what went wrong?
Small tutor group cap scrapped
Launched in November 2020, the scheme suffered from the two-month closure of schools in January last year – creating a tutoring backlog with pupils stuck at home.
The Guardian also revealed that a tuition provider approved by the NTP was using tutors in Sri Lanka who earned as little as £1.57 an hour.
Coverage was patchy, too. While the NTP reached its target number of pupils in the south-west of England, only 59.3 per cent of pupils in the north-west got their catch-up.
The EEF-run NTP just about hit its overall target of enrolling 250,000 pupils at the end of last year. But 44,000 of those (18 per cent) had not actually started their tutoring.
Then Randstad entered the fray. Much to the surprise of many – including ministers – the HR and recruitment agency won the contract to run the NTP this year and the following two.
We were trying to create the gold standard of the tuition sector
The firm undercut a bid led by the EEF, despite being rated lower on quality. Randstad’s contract was worth £24 million – just 40 per cent of the £62 million that was being offered by government.
The firm had a big job on its hand. This year’s target was ramped up – with ministers promising two million tutoring courses.
The government also shoe-horned in at the last minute a new tutoring route – for schools to get cash directly and sort out their own provision.
Many tutoring partners also lost valuable time after being stuck in a contract stand-off with Randstad in September, while many heads said a new online portal to access tutoring was a “bureaucratic nightmare”.
By the end of last term, the NTP had met just 15 per cent of the promised tutoring target.
Figures from last month show that just over one-third of the promised two million courses have started.
NTP tutor ‘deeply concerned’
Amid a backdrop of sluggish progress, ministers have made at least six changes to original tutoring standards since November (see below).
This includes a cap of one tutor for every three pupils has been upped to groups of 1:6.
Government says the changes allow schools more flexibility. Critics say they are all about ramping up numbers.
The five charities this week said it was “crucial” the NTP “retains its focus on providing access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged pupils”.
The watering down of the NTP
November, 2021: Academic mentors were not just targeted at schools in the poorest areas, but also those with 30 per cent disadvantaged children could get support.
December, 2021: A “clarification note” allowed pupils more than one block of tutoring, rather than encouraging schools to buy extra outside of the subsidised scheme.
March 2022: NTP tutor partners told they no longer have to ensure their catch-up reaches 65 per cent of pupil premium students.
March 2022: The mentor criteria was dropped again to 20 per cent.
March 2022: Academic mentors no longer have to be graduates, instead only needing A-levels to be eligible.
March 2022: DfE allows bigger tutor groups, from a cap of one tutor for every three pupils to 1:6.
March 2022: £65 million of funding shifted from the original two pillars to the school route.
EEF research shows that once group sizes increased to above six or seven, there is a “noticeable reduction in effectiveness”.
But they add the quality of teaching in small groups may be “as or more important than” the precise group size.
Action Tutoring, one of the NTP’s own leading tuition partners, went public this week to say it is “deeply concerned” about the changes that are “only serving to water down” the scheme.
But Randstad said with children “now fully integrated” back into schools “it is right that we re-evaluate the service of the programme”.
This will “put more power back into the hands of schools and those who know their pupils best where there is capacity,” Randstad added.
The majority of started courses – 532,000 – were organised by schools.
Tutoring data is patchy
Ministers can’t say how many pupils have had tutoring.
Schools minister Robin Walker told MPs this week he could not provide a “precise figure” for how many pupils have actually benefited from tutoring.
MPs have also seen demands for statistics on how many poorer pupils have been tutored go unanswered by Randstad and the DfE.
Walker said he aims to publish pupil-level figures “before the end of this month”.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has also asked for half-termly release of statistics, with more detailed figures in August.
But as most of the tutoring under the NTP is now organised by schools, the founding charities worry the key focus on quality could be lost.
They said schools “need to be confident that the tutoring they’re accessing will be high-quality, act as a complement to classroom teaching, and provide support for the pupils that need it the most”.
Professor Lee Elliot Major, from the University of Essex, who pitched a “National Tutoring Service” in April 2020, said he supported cash going to schools.
But it would require the current “mixed approach” being ditched, and “tighter accountability” of how and with whom schools spend their tutor cash.
Ministers explore axing Randstad
It leaves Randstad way off hitting its own targets under the two other tutoring routes.
Just 114,000 courses had started by pupils through the tuition partners pillar – 21 per cent of the firm’s 524,000 target for this year.
Meanwhile, only 74,000 courses were started by pupils through the academic mentors route. This equates to 29 per cent of the 252,000 target this year.
The DfE revealed it is now “exploring all options to make sure” feedback is “reflected in the programme next year”.
Academies minister Baroness Barran also recently said the contract is a “one year, plus one year, plus one year basis, with break clauses for both sides”.
Any change of ownership or focus could also be played up in the new white paper, sources suggested.
Nick Brook, NAHT deputy general secretary, said schools “need clarity” in April so they can set budgets.
Randstad said it is “committed to delivering support to the country’s most disadvantaged children and are recruiting and placing tutors every day to ensure that those who need support are able to access it”.
Robert Halfon, chair of the education committee and a vocal critic of the catch-up scheme, said Randstad should get “one last chance” but he “wouldn’t be upset” if the contract was terminated.
The government insists it will deliver the promised tutoring this year. And since the NTP’s formation, hundreds of thousands more children are now receiving tutoring.
But ministers now face a crunch decision that will decide the scheme’s legacy. Do they stick, or twist, with Randstad?