Tutoring take-up should ring alarm bells for long-term sustainability

We are a long way from the tipping point where tutoring becomes business as usual, everywhere, writes Nick Brook

We are a long way from the tipping point where tutoring becomes business as usual, everywhere, writes Nick Brook

29 Jul 2023, 5:00

New figures on take-up of tutoring through the National Tutoring Programme have given government reason to celebrate.

Following a rocky start, nearly four million programmes have now been delivered over the last three years. And the data suggests that the vast majority of schools in England have used at least some of their NTP grant during the last two years. 

Research suggests more schools are seeing positive benefits of tutoring. A recent survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that over three quarters of school leaders currently using the NTP believed it was improving the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

But is tutoring set to become a permanent feature of our education system, and a key plank of pupil premium strategies in years to come?

Dig a bit deeper into the data and there are warning signs for the long-term sustainability of tutoring.

The DfE’s data shows around 1.3 million course starts from September 2022 to May 2023.

‘This is the obvious impact of reduced subsidy’

Unlike last year, the number of course starts in 2022-23 has been relatively steady across all three terms, averaging around 400,000 to 450,000 per term.

It is therefore reasonable to predict that the total number of tutoring courses delivered this year will fall significantly short of the 2.2 million courses completed last year.

What this shows is not a failure of process or ambition, but the rather obvious impact of reduced subsidy levels on the volume of tutoring that schools can afford.

Just as many schools are delivering tutoring this year as last, but to fewer pupils. Increasing the cost burden on schools means that finite resources do not stretch as far or reach as many students.

The fall in course starts confirms that the DfE were absolutely right to change plans that would have reduced the subsidy level to 25 per cent from this September.

That would have had a catastrophic effect on take up of tutoring next year.

But while government should be congratulated for that decision, the clear link between subsidy level and volume should ring alarm-bells as to the likely consequence were funding withdrawn altogether, after next year.

‘Tutoring has proved less addictive’

A key assumption that shaped the roll-out of the NTP has been proved wrong. It was thought that tutoring was “sticky” – meaning that once experienced, schools would stick with it even when incentives were removed.

By frontloading funding to the start of the programme the government perhaps hoped to maximise the number of schools that would get a taste of tutoring, after which they would become hooked – and continue to pay for it even when their costs rose.

Tutoring has proved less addictive than first thought.

As support for tutoring continues to grow, we are a long way off reaching the tipping point where tutoring becomes business as usual, everywhere.

And what I am increasingly convinced of is that levels of tutoring will plummet after 2024, without further investment.

Despite reporting positive views on the impact of tutoring, the NFER survey also found that well over half (58 per cent) of school leaders did not think tutoring was a long-term solution to closing the attainment gap.

And less than half (46 per cent) of school leaders agreed that providing tutoring would be their top priority if more funding was available for supporting pupil premium.

‘We need much more granular research’

Continued targeted investment will be important to maintain tutoring, but on its own, this will not be enough.

Despite strong evidence from Education Endowment Foundation on the potential impact of one-to-one and small group tuition, we know relatively little about what works where, and why – and for that matter, what doesn’t.

It is not enough to say “tutoring works”, because this runs against the lived experience in some schools, where it plainly hasn’t – yet.

We need much more granular research on the importance or otherwise of factors such as qualification of tutors, dosage and group size, and how this plays out in different subjects, different ages and within different types of schools.

Making high quality tutoring available to those pupils that need it most, not just to the children of families that can afford it, remains an ambition worth getting excited about.

If we are to focus on anything next year, let it be on developing a deep understanding of impact, rather than obsessing about volume. There is little to celebrate in hitting the target, but missing the point.

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  1. I have been tutoring for the past 3 years. It has a massive impact on the confidence of pupils, allowing them to build on this during lessons. Some students come with missing subject knowledge, lost through the pandemic, which can be addressed. I hate to think that underprivileged pupils will lose the impact tutoring has had. We as a country have been failing these students for years, but not because of schools, I was a teacher for 34 years and know teachers are working unbelievably hard. They are dedicated individuals who need support and tutoring offers the support to reach students who need that extra help. Remember schools are busy places, teachers work hard enough and many are at breaking point. Tutoring helps everyone. It must become embedded into our education system.