Imagine a world where any undergraduate student could volunteer to help level up education’s uneven playing field. They would be serving in a tutoring army helping poorer pupils to improve their basic writing, reading or maths at school. Students would gain invaluable life experience, add something special to their CVs and even learn some of the basics of teaching.
I’ve been championing such a university-led tutoring scheme for some years now as an idea for levelling up the opportunities for poorer pupils – who are unable to pay for private tutoring outside school. The shadow education sector is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars across the world, but it is mainly a middle-class affair.
And all this was the case even before Covid-19 forced millions of pupils to miss out on schooling in the spring of 2020. Our research shows that the pandemic has further exacerbated the UK’s stark socio-economic academic divide, with private school pupils twice as likely to benefit from a full school day’s learning during school closures compared with their state school counterparts.
Meanwhile, new policies issued by England’s HE regulator, the Office for Students, to monitor universities’ efforts to help schools raise attainment have made the proposition even more of a no-brainer for academic institutions. I hope that one day it will become a national social mobility service, advertised on every campus across the land. This would be the British equivalent of AmeriCorps in the US – appealing to the volunteering instincts of the younger generation.
One-to-one (and small group) tutoring, delivered well, is one of education’s surest bets when it comes to improving the progress of poorer pupils. The American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom used it as the benchmark for the greatest rate of progress a learner can make. Critically, recent evaluations in a range of countries have shown that well-trained undergraduates focused on specific skills can be highly effective tutors.
Tutoring schemes are offered by some universities and charities. But the problem is that we know little about which ones ensure consistent quality in the tutoring provided – and its actual impact on learning. One-to-one tutoring is a very different skill to whole-class teaching. But it still requires proper preparation and specific areas of focus if it is to benefit pupils and complement what teachers are already doing in the classroom.
Another problem is that current provision is piecemeal, offered in some parts of the country but non-existent elsewhere – often in the very left-behind areas in need of most help.
The aim is to embed tutoring in the university system in a much more systematic and sustainable way , forging partnerships with local multi-academy trusts and becoming a standard part of student life.
We’re currently running a pilot at the University of Exeter, and early next year we’ll share our results with government officials and other universities. The hope is to develop a model to be used across the sector.
There are lots of details to work through. Student volunteers (from any degree subject) could, for example, be offered academic credits for their tutoring. This might involve completing a module offered as a study option. Tutoring could be face-to-face in local schools, or a combination of face-to-face and online sessions, particularly for schools further away from campus. This could include launching a programme at a university followed by virtual tutoring sessions and finishing with a closing event in person.
Multi-academy trusts could provide proper in-house training so undergraduates can tutor in specific areas, focusing for example on improving basic writing and reading for 12-year-olds. Studies suggest that 10 one-hour sessions across one school term can make a real difference for pupils.
The basic skills of literacy and numeracy are so important for later learning in school: it’s why so many pupils fall behind when it comes to GCSEs. And there are some excellent training modules for tutoring key skills available that undergraduates could complete. Teachers would, of course, need to guarantee that it complements classroom work. We will also need to consider what resources are required for tutoring and how these might be supported by universities and schools.
An added benefit would be that many students might be tempted into a career in teaching. This would be especially welcome at a time when applications for teaching posts are in decline.
University-led tutoring could help address one of the major challenges facing the government’s current national tutoring programme for schools. The programme was launched during the pandemic to help pupils who had fallen behind in the classroom, but it has been dogged by implantation problems and a paucity of quality tutors available around the country to deliver it.
A realistic aim for the programme would be to one day involve 25,000 students, benefiting hundreds of thousands of pupils annually. That would be a major contribution to levelling up an unequal education system in the post-pandemic era and a genuine boost to social mobility.
Lee Elliot Major is the UK’s first professor of social mobility, based at the University of Exeter. He was previously chief executive of the Sutton Trust, was awarded an OBE in the 2019 Queen’s Honours and is the first in his family to go to university.
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