Protect Covid tutoring cash if serious about closing disadvantage gap

By Dr Ben Styles, NFER Head of Classroom Practice and Workforce

Monday 28 November 2022

This article was first published in Tes on Friday 25 November 2022.

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) was introduced to help disadvantaged children catch up on learning after the pandemic. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in the system with the partial closure of schools, the hasty introduction of remote learning, and pupil and teacher absences rife ever since.

Our evaluation of the first year of the Government’s flagship education recovery programme found that those who had more tutoring from external tutors through the Tuition Partners programme achieved better scores in English in primary schools, and better grades for maths and English (teacher assessed grades) in Year 11. So, success then? To some extent, yes.

The Government, through the Education Endowment Foundation, spent £80m quickly in the 2020/21 school year on delivering an intervention which, when implemented properly, has indeed helped pupils who received it. In addition, despite a constant stream of press stories reporting dissatisfaction with the scheme, 80 per cent of school leads were either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ satisfied with the programme in its first year. Yet our evaluation found it difficult to detect differences between those schools participating in the NTP and those which did not.

We could see almost nothing to suggest the programme led to a closing of the disadvantage gap – the difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers. The only chink of light came when we analysed a small number of schools where most of their pupil premium students had been tutored: these students had improved. The general picture is disappointing and backed up by other analyses. Between 2018/19 and 2021/22, schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged pupils were most likely to see a decline in their progress scores. In other words, there has been a widening in outcomes across schools with different intakes, despite the additional catch-up support which has been in place.

A relatively small proportion of disadvantaged pupils in participating schools were selected for NTP tutoring, meaning a large number of disadvantaged pupils were included in the analysis that did not receive tutoring. Only 46 per cent of the 232,892 children enrolled onto the Tuition Partners programme were defined as ‘disadvantaged’. This represents around five per cent of the country’s disadvantaged children. In other words, even if every tutor tutored perfectly, and every participating pupil absorbed every single piece of available knowledge, the programme could not influence the disadvantage gap in a meaningful way.

This low reach also meant we could not reliably evaluate the impact of the other stream of support – Academic Mentors (AM) – full-time, in-house staff members employed to provide intensive support to pupils who need it. This was because within our analysis of Year 11 disadvantaged pupils in AM participating schools, the majority of them did not receive academic mentoring.

The latest figures on delivery from DfE, for the programme’s second year, show a more promising story. Nearly 1.8 million courses had started in the 21/22 academic year up to June 2022, illustrating a much greater reach compared to the 240,039 courses enrolled onto the previous year – largely due to the introduction of school-led tutoring. At this scale, the programme did have the potential to reach a good proportion of pupil premium pupils. What is unclear from the publicly available figures so far is the extent to which those children were disadvantaged, particularly given the 65 per cent pupil premium target for the Tuition Partners pillar was abandoned halfway through the year. 

We are currently evaluating the second year of the programme and will be able to report on progress by the summer. What we know already, however, is that some schools chose not to participate in the programme as they felt the subsidies were insufficient to cover the extra tutoring costs. Worryingly, the subsidy has reduced further in 2022/23 despite school leaders already complaining of the increased workloads from participating in the programme.

Funding sent to schools for pupil premium children is expected to be used to support tutoring. However, there will be many other calls on that cash including rising energy bills and day-to-day costs which look certain to rise to unprecedented levels. This makes planning and budgeting almost impossible.

What schools do know for certain is that the attainment gap is wider than it’s been for a decade, and that improved targeting of disadvantaged pupils is required to reduce it. While the Chancellor’s recent education funding boost is welcome, sustained investment at scale in effective tutoring is required. Short-term cash injections will not solve the problem. What would also help schools is knowing more about which kind of tutoring works best for which kind of pupil. A programme of research is needed that builds on the existing literature to enable school leaders to make informed choices regarding how to spend their NTP funding. Furthermore, we believe teachers should retain autonomy in deciding who receives tutoring, given their ability to identify those who are likely to benefit the most.

It is absolutely essential that tutoring is protected from any Government cuts and that funds are distributed in a way which directly supports disadvantage. Allowing young people to suffer from negative economic impacts for years to come as a result of missed schooling would not just be catastrophic for the individuals concerned, but also for the country’s long-term economic prospects. By investing properly in their recovery now, we can provide the best possible education to children in the most challenging family circumstances, giving both them and the country a fighting chance of a productive and prosperous future.