A national university led tutoring service could help to level up education

Lee Elliot Major believes a shift of focus in access policy in England paves the way for a national student tutoring service for schools

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter

Universities minister Michelle Donelan’s announcement last week marks a bold new era for university access in England. Not only will universities be tasked with attracting poorer students into their lecture halls, but with helping schools improve the progress of poorer pupils in the classroom.

A sure sign that the higher education minister means business is the appointment of John Blake, head of public affairs and engagement at Ark schools, as the new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students.

No one should underestimate the simmering tensions between Whitehall and the sector on the fault line of university access. Ministers are convinced that access efforts have not been challenged enough in the cosy world of academe. Vice chancellors, meanwhile, have argued that the hard work of raising school attainment is outside their job remit. Access and participation plans will have be ripped up and started again.

An idea whose time has come

But what is undeniably exciting about this step change in policy is that it paves the way for a programme that has genuine potential to help boost social mobility in the wake of a pandemic that has exacerbated educational and societal inequalities. That programme is a university-led tutoring service. It’s something I’ve been calling for since Covid-19 first forced millions of pupils to miss out on schooling in the spring of 2020. It was music to my ears to hear that the idea of tutoring was highlighted in last week’s ministerial announcement.

We have developed detailed proposals for a university-led tutoring scheme as part of our research on levelling up in the south west. The idea would be to recruit undergraduate students to tutor disadvantaged pupils in their local region. Student volunteers would be offered academic credits for their tutoring; local school trusts or education charities would provide training; and groups of schools would ensure that tutoring integrates with the work of teachers.

Such a scheme would help to address one of the major challenges facing England’s current national tutoring programme: the paucity of quality tutors available around the country to deliver it. The scheme could be seen as the parallel of AmeriCorps in the US – a chance to tap into the volunteering instincts of the younger generation.

We are currently scoping a pilot scheme at the University of Exeter, and sharing our plans with other universities. We hope to develop a model that could be used across the sector. A realistic future aim could perhaps involve 25,000 students benefiting hundreds of thousands of pupils every year.

The case for a (new) national tutoring scheme

A key advantage of tutoring is that it works. Reviews of education evidence show that one to one (and small group) tutoring is one of education’s surest bets when it comes to improving the progress of poorer pupils. Recent evaluations in England have shown that undergraduates can be highly effective tutors. Trials from other countries during the pandemic have confirmed this. A trial in Italy showed that poorer pupils randomly selected for free online tutoring from university students did much better than peers who were not given the same opportunity. Another study in Germany meanwhile found improved outcomes for pupils randomly selected to receive one-to-one mentorship from university students.

Tutoring schemes are already delivered by charities and social enterprises including Tutor Trust, CoachBright, and the Brilliant Club among others. But the point of a university led tutoring programme is that it would embed tutoring in a systematic and sustainable way in the university system forging partnerships with local Multi-academy trusts.

Our pilot will determine whether it would be possible to develop a credit bearing module offered to undergraduates as a study option. This could generate participation at scale, deliver quality assurance for schools and be a valuable experience for students. Many might be tempted into a career in teaching as a result. We will consider what resources are required for a tutoring programme and how these might be supported by universities.

School leaders of multi-academy trusts and other schools have told us that with proper in-house training, undergraduates could have real additional impact in specific areas, focusing for example on improving basic literacy. To support pupils in hard to reach areas, we could develop a blended approach. This could include perhaps launching a programme at a university followed by virtual tutoring sessions and finishing with a closing event in person.

As the Prime Minister has noted, the boom in private tutoring outside schools has been fuelled mainly by middle-class parents able to dig deep into their pockets to give their children extra help. This scheme would be a great way of levelling up through education. It would also help the government’s efforts to tackle one of education’s biggest scandals – the hundreds of thousands of pupils who leave school with poor literacy and numeracy. And it would enable universities to deliver on their civic duties. University led tutoring is surely an idea whose time has come.

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