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Cowboy Tutors

Cowboy Tutors

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) is the government’s key policy to battle the effects of the pandemic on student success. I work in an educational organisation and have watched this policy be formulated over the last six months. It is illogical at best; ruinous at worst.

While the exams fiasco is still the most visible symptom of an underlying malaise in the education sector, there are further, more worrying developments away from the media glare. The COVID-19 pandemic is perfectly engineered to exacerbate the existing inequities of the system. It removes access to high-quality teaching and resources for state-educated pupils, with these same students stuck at home, where aggravating domestic circumstances disproportionately impinge on their ability to progress. The ways in which we respond to these challenges could staunch the worst effects – but they could let them linger for a generation.

Pupil Premium-qualifying students are the focus of the programme. These are the students who have been in receipt of Free School Meals at any time within the last six years. A means-tested voucher scheme, which would provide extra tuition to these students is an idea that has been kicked around by notable organisations for some time. £350 million has been duly allocated to a ‘National Tutoring Programme’ (NTP) administered by the well-respected Education Endowment Fund to fight the attendant effects of school closures. The attainment gap will be closed, the disastrous impact of school closures on academic progress will be reversed. Problem solved, right?

Well, not quite. I’ve heard from numerous people closely involved with the process, both on the governmental side and within third-sector organisations, that there has not always been a clear rationale to decisions made regarding the NTP, especially within the Treasury. (Ironically, the finance-bods are especially mindful of how choices will play out in the media.)

As the idea evolved from a trial-balloon to a fully-fledged reality, the horse-trading between the Department for Education and the Treasury escalated. The argument about what money could be spent took on a helter-skelter, illogical bent: the policy was made, changed and rubber-stamped at breakneck speed.

A key element of the NTP is that the money can, inexplicably, only be spent on Key Stage Four (GCSE) students – as though all of the students who are set to finish their A-Levels in the next academic year are going to be just fine without it. No satisfactory reason for this bizarre choice has ever been provided. Schools and educational charities are basically united in trying to pressure the National Tutoring Programme to change its criteria. At the time of writing, they are yet to do so.

Secondly, the funding pot is remarkably open to being used and abused by private tuition agencies and platforms, many of whom are well-known cowboys. They recruit tutors from famous private schools, then rent them out to rich families at exorbitant fees. While the NTP claims that schools will only be able to buy subsidised tuition from a list of ‘trusted providers’, the four eligibility criteria for becoming such a provider are not particularly robust.

The list of trusted providers includes a number of organisations that I have had dealings with. Some of them are risibly inept. Organisations like MyTutor and TutorFair are two of the bigger fish in a murky pond of tuition providers, who are poised to profit massively when the funding round opens at the end of August. Both have existing arms that provide free or ‘low-bono’ tuition in a school-based context. This is particularly crucial, given that the funds will be spent by schools rather than directly from the NTP, and that organisations are required to have ‘experience’ of working with schools in order to access the funding. These are the kind of organisations that might have described themselves as the ‘Uber of Tutoring’ before that company became a byword for a grotesque and aggressive corporate culture. Effectively, they are tech platforms that provide a marketplace for largely unregulated tutoring relationships, where quality assurance is non-existent beyond the basic star ratings provided by parents.

As with all tech behemoths, both organisations have a fig leaf of charitable enterprise where they provide inconsistent and ineffective free tuition in parallel for every hour that they sell. TutorFair aims to provide an equal amount of ‘paid for’ and ‘free’ tuition, matching their privately sold hours of tuition with pro-bono hours in underperforming schools. I’ve seen them provide one chemistry tutor to deliver an hour’s teaching to 30 students. The TutorFair facilitator then stated that that one hour would count that as 30 hours of tuition against their target.

Like many corporations that claim to perform social responsibility, their extant work with disadvantaged young people is patchy at best and invariably under-administered. The last I heard, the MyTutor account managers responsible for managing school accounts rarely, if ever, visit, and their attendance data and evaluation efforts are thin. The work they do is effectively an underfunded method of generating simple, neat and eye-catching numbers on ‘Impact Reports’, and little else. There is a complete absence of long-term, sustained support.

I recently signed up as a tutor on TutorFair and gave the email address of two friends who don’t have children. They provided me with glowing references for the non-existent tuition I had delivered to their made-up kids. I whacked in a three-year-old DBS number – the reference that shows you are certified as safe to work with children – and I was ready to go: a keen-bean tutor, green-lit to work on their platform.

These companies should not be furnished with large amounts of taxpayers’ money. Stark briefing notes have already been issued by the most respected educational organisations in the country, showing that during lockdown 51% of private school students were accessing online learning every day – more than double the number of their state school counterparts. 1.9 million people are on the wrong side of a digital divide. Without access to broadband, any kind of remote learning is impossible for them.

The already ludicrous attainment gap between the most affluent and the most deprived is predicted to increase by 75%, all as a result of school closures and their attendant negative effects. It’s not hyperbolic to say that these closures ‘constitute a potential threat to the educational development of a generation of children’ as a recent study from UCL warned. The situation is beyond dire.

£350 million might make a dent in the attainment gap; or it may end up seeming pathetically small. Even the most serious third sector organisations and schools can’t claim to have some kind of silver bullet solution. But they need to be encouraged to improve wherever possible. Investment in fly-by-night for-profit interventions is not what the situation requires.

The government seems to have assumed that a solution that works for rich people will work for everyone else – but unregulated, expensive tuition doesn’t always work and it’s not bold to suggest that it may be a correlative rather than causal factor in certain demographics of young people achieving highly already.

Tuition works, but not all tuition is created equal. Targeted, thoughtful tuition that links tutor, student and school and is delivered by trained practitioners would be a boon to millions of young people. But having children taught maths by a recent classics graduate with no references or training would be, on an aggregate public policy level, a complete waste of money.

The government has had a taste of what the pandemic can wreak on their agenda and on front pages when it comes to young people, their education and the public’s basic sense of fairness. With the widening attainment gap, there may never be such a grimly cinematic moment to focus public ire as there was on results day. But it is even more important that the government gets this right – or risk compounding the effects of COVID-19 by crippling a generation’s ability to author themselves a fulfilling future.

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