Williamson backs national online tutoring pilot

The government has backed a national online tutoring pilot that will see hundreds of disadvantaged pupils receive free tuition from university undergraduates, but it will reach fewer youngsters than originally hoped.

Schools Week revealed last month that four education charities were in talks with ministers about plans to test whether one-on-one tutoring could help narrow the growing attainment gap between poorer pupils and their disadvantaged peers.

It follows calls for efforts to help those being left behind by online learning during the coronavirus outbreak, and comes as new analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that school closures are “likely to reverse progress made to narrow the gap in the last decade”.

Today, the EEF, Sutton Trust, Impetus and Nesta confirmed their plans to pilot four different tutoring schemes with up to 1,600 pupils, and received the backing of Gavin Williamson.

The education secretary said the pilot was “an important part of plans to put support in place to ensure young people don’t fall behind as a result of coronavirus, particularly those facing other disadvantages”.

However, the pilot will reach fewer pupils than hoped – architects were hoping to work with up to 6,000 – because of a lack of time available for fundraising.

Two of the schemes will use university students to tutor pupils. It comes after Robert Halfon, the chair of the Parliamentary education committee, called for “a volunteer army” of retired teachers and undergraduates to help pupils catch up.

MyTutor will use “handpicked undergraduate tutors” to provide live one-to-one sessions for up to 1,000 year 10 and 11 pupils, while the Tutor Trust, which also uses undergraduates, will adapt its own small-group tuition model to offer online sessions for 100 year 5 and 10 pupils in Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Leeds.

Nick Bent and Abigail Shapiro, the Tutor Trust’s co-founders, said its undergraduates “have more time to tutor right now, just when disadvantaged pupils need more help than ever to fulfil their potential”.

“This pilot will show how to level up the playing field.”

Action Tutoring will pilot online tuition in core subjects for up to 100 pupils in years 6 and 10, and The Access Project will support 440 pupils in years 10 to 13 who normally receive face-to-face tuition through a new online model.

Andy Ratcliffe, the CEO of Impetus, said tutoring “boosts children’s learning and better-off children get more of it than those from disadvantaged background”.

“That was true before Covid struck and the tutoring gap has widened even further during lockdown.”

The pilot will be independently evaluated by NatCen.

The EEF’s latest analysis, which the charity described as the most detailed to date, concluded that school closures as a result of Covid-19 “will widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, likely reversing progress made to narrow the gap since 2011”.

Analysis by the Education Policy Institute disadvantaged pupils and their classmates at the end of primary school is estimated to have narrowed from 11.5 months in 2009 to 9.2 months last year.

The EEF’s analysis found that supporting effective remote learning “will mitigate the extent to which the gap widens”, and that sustained support “will be needed to help disadvantaged pupils catch up”.

Ravi Gurumurthy, Nesta’s CEO, pointed to “promising evidence to show that one-to-one tutoring has a positive impact on improving learning outcomes for disadvantaged students, and could help mitigate the effects of the lockdown”.

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust and the EEF, said: “As today’s analysis shows, school closures are likely to have a devastating impact on the poorest children and young people. The attainment gap widens when children are not in school.”