DOUGLAS FAIRFIELD, EDUCATION ADVISER, EDUCATION DEVELOPMENT TRUST, UK
LAURA FOX, SENIOR EDUCATION ADVISER, EDUCATION DEVELOPMENT TRUST, UK
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a decade of progress towards closing the education disadvantage gap in the UK has, for all intents and purposes, been eradicated, with the disparity in progress at Key Stage 4 between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers having reached its highest level since 2011/12 (ONS, 2022a). Additionally, since 2019 there has been a six per cent decrease in students achieving the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths at Key Stage 2 (ONS, 2022b). Long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on those not in full-time education prior to the school closures are also beginning to manifest, with many Early Years providers reporting ‘delays in babies’ and children’s speech and language development’ (OfstedThe Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... More, 2022a). This highlights the potential negative impacts across all key stages for the next cohort of students in full-time education. To offset learning lost, school leaders and classroom teachers need to ensure that all students are getting the most from their time in school.
We know that the biggest in-school factor that impacts student outcomes is the quality of the teaching that they receive (EEF, 2022) particularly for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds (Nye et al., 2004). However, as a mode of instruction that extends beyond traditional whole-class teaching (Wasik and Slavin, 1993), in-school tutoring has the potential to be a high-impact supplement to classroom teaching as a means of reducing COVID-related learning loss, as well as closing the education disadvantage gap in the UK. Research indicates the possible benefits of tutoring as a ‘universally recognised method of addressing low attainment and educational inequality’ (DfEDepartment for Education - a ministerial department responsi... More, 2022), with additional progress measuring from four months in secondary settings to six months in primary (EEF, 2018a). However, if tutoring is to fulfil this potential and reduce learning gaps, it is vital that it becomes an intentionally embedded, structured and sustainable aspect of school strategy.
Tuition is likely to be most impactful when it is ‘additional to and explicitly linked with normal lessons’ (EEF, 2018a), when it is ‘targeted at pupils’ specific needs’ in relation to the curriculum (EEF, 2018b), and when it occurs in ‘short, regular sessions… over a set period of time’ (EEF, 2018a). This suggests intentionality as a precondition for the effective implementation of tutoring and begs the question, what exactly should this look like in a school context? A school adopting an intentional approach might, for example, implement a system where weekly tutoring sessions aim to consolidate learning and address misconceptions that presented themselves through the teaching week. In this example, the classroom teacher could, on a weekly basis, use in-class student-level assessment data, supplemented by their professional judgment, to suggest specific aspects from their lessons for tuition to focus on. A different school might use end-of-unit summative assessment data to identify students who have fallen further behind, following this up with question-level analysis of the assessment data to identify the highest-leverage areas for development on which tuition will focus. Neither of these approaches is preferable over the other, nor the only approaches available to schools, but it is important that the approach taken must be carefully considered if it is to be implemented effectively.
Whatever the approach taken, it is essential that time is intentionally embedded for tutors and classroom teachers to discuss the tuition and its intended outcomes (ImpactEd, 2022), ensuring that the tuition remains specific to the student’s needs. Through this dialogue, the tutor can understand the relevant specification and the student’s current progress through it, and the shared knowledge of learning gaps and learning goals, supported by current data, will strengthen the tutor’s planning and direct targeting of areas of need. Furthermore, regular tutor–teacher dialogue shares specific learning needs, such as any SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) or behavioural considerations.
As the tutor’s knowledge of the student develops, patterns in tuition sessions can also inform mainstream classroom learning, and the sharing of information can become an increasingly two-way process with a flow of knowledge leading to closer alignment of classroom and tuition learning (Ofsted, 2022b). Furthermore, frequent dialogue serves to strengthen the tutor and the classroom teacher’s confidence that their planning is synergistically providing targeted support for the student.
Given the breadth of knowledge to be shared, it is important that teachers and tutors are provided with guidance to ensure that their conversations are fruitful and ‘SMART’ (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound). There are potential workload and timetabling challenges, but time does not need to be a limiting factor; brief catch-ups should suffice to positively shape both tutoring (Ofsted, 2022b) and the classroom learning.
While tutor–teacher dialogue provides a useful framework to identify tuition objectives that can be tailored to specific students and aligned with classroom objectives, it is important to be aware of the risk that tutoring sessions could become overly prescriptive and inflexible, preventing tutors from responding to students’ needs live in the tutor sessions. Tutors need to be empowered to use their initiative to adapt within sessions beyond the pre-agreed planning so that pupils achieve the agreed learning goals rather than waiting for the next tutor–teacher dialogue to obtain ‘permission’.
Consider a situation where a science teacher and tutor have used assessment data to identify that certain students are struggling with the concept of ionic bonding. They agree that during the next tuition session it will be impactful for the tutor to reteach ionic bonding and provide students with the opportunity to practise describing and drawing different examples of ionic bonding.
In the tutoring session, the tutor asks, ‘What is an ion?’
The students are unable to answer, and the tutor realises that they don’t understand the concept of ions, which is key to understanding ionic bonding. The tutor decides to quickly review ions as a concept, explaining:
Ions are charged particles resulting from the loss or gain of one or more electrons. What would happen to the charge of an atom if it lost a single electron?
The students’ responses to this question indicate that the students lack a secure understanding of atomic structure, which is key to understanding the concept of ions.
The tutor has two options:
- Reteach atomic structure, significantly altering the tutoring session from the agreed focus
- Persevere with explaining and practising ionic bonding as agreed.
The tutor decides that it would be an inefficient use of tutoring time to wait for the next tutor–teacher dialogue to ask for permission to adapt the session. Instead, the tutor alters the session content to review atomic structure, with the aim of teaching ionic bonding in future sessions.
In their next catch-up, the tutor informs the classroom teacher of this decision and the root cause of the students’ misunderstanding. The classroom teacher decides to include a retrieval quiz that reviews atomic structure at the start of her next lesson.
Key factors in this approach to effective tutoring implementation and practice are:
- a trusting tutor–teacher relationship that gives tutors an appropriate degree of autonomy for tutors to adapt their input as necessary in service to the intended tutoring objective
- a tutor with secure subject knowledge and strong pedagogical skills that allow them to identify the root causes of learning gaps.
It may be the case that the level of tutor autonomy in tuition adaptations will increase as the tutor’s pedagogical expertise and subject knowledge develops. In fact, pedagogical expertise and subject knowledge are key indicators of effective tutoring.
An independent review of tutoring in schools highlights that the best tutoring sessions involved tutors with ‘secure subject knowledge and strong pedagogical skills’ (Ofsted, 2022b). Tutors with secure subject knowledge could adapt tutoring sessions to ‘accommodate more detail when they picked up on specific misconceptions or missing knowledge’, and strong pedagogical skills allowed tutors to alter their methods of instruction ‘if one technique was not working’ (Ofsted, 2022b).
Conversely, where a tutor’s subject knowledge was not secure, their ‘explanations around the content were sometimes laboured and not always precise enough to help pupils learn concepts’, they struggled to break concepts down into small and manageable ‘sequences of learning’, and tuition sessions were often pitched too high so that students were ‘unable to grasp’ concepts (Ofsted, 2022b). As far as we know, students learn the same way in tuition as they do in classrooms, and following high-quality and evidence-based teaching strategies – for example, clear explanations, worked examples, effective questions and questioning, modelling and feedback – is likely to result in better student learning.
While quality classroom teaching remains the highest-leverage tool in improving academic outcomes, in-school tutoring has the potential to be a high-impact supplement to classroom teaching. However, it must not be seen as a bolt-on to classroom teaching. Effective implementation of tutoring within school curricula must be carefully considered in relation to school context, and it is likely to be more effective if teachers and tutors are effectively supported. This includes having clear processes and guidance for teachers and tutors, dedicated time for tutor–teacher dialogue, providing appropriate training on subject knowledge and pedagogy, and creating a culture of trust where tutors can use professional judgement to meet the highest-leverage needs of students.
A school leader looking to embed tuition in their school may find the following questions useful:
- What does tuition that is ‘additional to and explicitly linked with’ mainstream lessons and that is ‘targeted at students’ specific needs’ look like in your school context?
- Are tutors and classroom teachers given dedicated time to have meaningful dialogue? Are they provided with guidance on key considerations to make this dialogue purposeful and time-efficient?
- Are tutors trusted to take the initiative to adapt tuition sessions as necessary to address the immediate needs of the students in line with the overarching tuition objectives?
- How can school leaders ensure that tutors have access to adequate support and personalised training to improve their pedagogical skills and subject knowledge?