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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

University-led tutoring to support civic engagement, raising attainment and student success (the win win win model)

One of most uncomfortable defining characteristics of many of the country’s universities is the poor education prospects observed only a stone’s throw away from campus. The differences could not be starker between the scholarly experiences enjoyed by well-educated home and international students and the classroom struggles faced by pupils in schools a few streets away. The place in which the university is located is a vivid reminder of society’s education haves and have nots. 

University-led tutoring is an attempt to bridge these two disparate worlds: utilising a rich untapped university resource – willing and literate undergraduates – to help pupils improve basic literacy in local community schools. For this scheme, ‘civic’ has a deeper meaning: the responsibility of students to give back to society, helping others who may have faced extra barriers to their own learning. The hope is that undergraduate tutors will also consider a career in teaching, with the potential for many to enhance the local education ecosystem.

In May 2023, we unveiled the first results of our programme. Pupils who were tutored by undergraduates in an initial small pilot in Exeter schools showed 100 per cent improvement in their basic writing skills. This boost to basic literacy skills demonstrated the scheme’s potential to help teachers equalise educational opportunities amid stark achievement gaps in the post-pandemic era.

But the power of the scheme is that it has many benefits. University students serving as tutors developed lifelong skills as part of their training, and took a university module as part of their tutoring for which they received credits towards their degree. Meanwhile, many of the students considered a career in teaching; the scheme creates a pipeline for new teachers at a time when the profession is facing acute recruitment and retention challenges. This is why we call it the ‘win win win’ programme.

Civic roots

The idea to pilot the programme in Exeter came in a report published in autumn 2021, documenting the poor results of children and young people from under-resourced backgrounds in the South West peninsula. Social mobility in the South West, published in 2022, found that the region had some of the worst school results in the country. The report paved the way for the creation of the South West Social Mobility Commission, a regional body chaired by Sir Michael Barber, dedicated to improving social-mobility prospects across the region – specifically to improve the educational and life prospects of children from poorer homes. One of the core recommendations for the Commission was to champion a university-led tutoring service to support under-resourced pupils who weren’t reaching expected standards at school. It argued that, ‘Universities are ideally placed to contribute to these efforts by embedding a student volunteer tutoring service in their local region.’ The Commission’s work forms part of the University of Exeter’s broader civic engagement with its local communities. 

All this came at a time when universities were being urged to do more to help schools raise attainment in the classroom. In November 2021, during his short tenure as education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi wrote to the Office for Students (OfS), calling on universities to take a greater role in raising aspirations and standards in education. This ministerial guidance created an immediate challenge for university widening-participation teams developing their access and participation plans: which proven activities could they meaningfully deliver to help schools improve the prospects of their pupils? 

This question is even more pressing in the post-pandemic era. The divide between the education haves and have-nots is wider than ever. In 2022-23, the gap in GCSE attainment for 15 to 16 year olds between those entitled to free school meals and other pupils widened to 3.94, according to the Government’s ‘disadvantage gap index’. The gap had widened every year since 2020 and was at its widest for more than a decade. While the Exeter tutoring scheme is focused on improving the basic skills of pupils whatever they choose to go on to do afterwards, the stark GCSE divides do not bode well for future efforts to widen access to universities. The tutoring scheme became part of the university’s access and participation plan. 

A good education bet 

One-on-one or small-group intensive support provided by teachers or tutors is one of education’s best bets for boosting the progress of pupils from disadvantaged or under-resourced backgrounds. Delivered well at the right intensity, it can lead to an extra four to five months’ learning gain for pupils in the course of one academic year.

At the same time, studies show significant variation in outcomes from tutoring schemes, highlighting the importance of high-quality delivery and successful quality assurance. This was highlighted by the mixed results of the government’s flagship national education recovery scheme, the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) in England. From the NTP’s inception up until October 2023, the Department for Education estimates that 4,932,327 tutoring sessions were started by pupils across the school system. That is no small logistical feat. 

An evaluation of the first year of the NTP in England found that fewer than half of the pupils enrolled (46 per cent) were eligible for free school meals or pupil-premium funds. A substantial minority of pupils (35 per cent) failed to complete the number of tutoring sessions thought necessary to significantly enhance their attainment. Funding has also become a barrier for many schools, as the NTP is only part-funded directly by government, with the balance drawn from already severely stretched school budgets. Despite funding for the NTP coming to an end in February 2024, the Department for Education has stated that it wants tutoring to continue, providing targeted support for those children who will benefit. 

The case for university-led tutoring

There are good reasons to believe that university-led tutoring should be an instrumental part of any future tutoring landscape in the school system. Several studies across the world have demonstrated positive impacts. In Italy, the Tutoring Online Program, implemented during the 2020 lockdown, involved trained volunteer university students tutoring middle-school students online. The associated randomised trial found large effects on test scores. Meanwhile, a randomised control trial of the Tutor Trust programme in England, involving paid undergraduate student tutors, found that 11 year olds made three months’ extra progress in Mathematics, while secondary-school pupils made one month’s extra progress. 

Exeter tutoring model 

Under the umbrella of the South West Social Mobility Commission, social-mobility experts at the University of Exeter and teachers at the local schools in the Ted Wragg Trust collaborated in 2022 to deliver a pilot undergraduate tutoring programme. The work to develop and pilot the Exeter Tutoring Model was funded by a coalition including personal donors, the Cobalt Trust, UPP Foundation and the University of Exeter’s Policy Support Fund. 

The university-school partnership led to the basic strands of the Exeter tutoring model. Tutoring would be targeted at improving foundational literacy for 13 year olds, aiming to improve access to the full curriculum during the early years of secondary schooling, when we know many children fall behind. Undergraduates would undergo teacher-led training and take a university module as part of their tutoring placement, for which they would receive credits towards their degree. Unlike other programmes, the tutoring does not include an external charge to the school. 

It was decided that tutoring should focus on improving foundational skills early on in secondary schools. Foundational skills include reading fluency, writing accuracy, number fluency and emotional literacy. These are the gateways that allow pupils to successfully access the rest of the curriculum and to secure the GCSE English and Mathematics qualifications that are so crucial for further study and work. Teachers had reported growing concerns that many pupils were falling behind in these skills in the wake of school closures during Covid. 

In the pilot, the tutoring focused on writing accuracy. Lindsay Skinner, director of education at the Ted Wragg Trust and author of the book Crafting Brilliant Sentences, wrote the tutoring programme, Crafting Accurate Sentences, and produced the undergraduate tutor-training course: a set of five online lectures with supporting slides. This ensured that the content delivered was in line with current in-school practice and that the undergraduates were well-prepared to deliver the content. 

The team was able to embed the tutoring option into Exeter University’s pre-existing Learning for Teaching module, recruiting six undergraduates to tutor 16 Year 8 (12- or 13-year-old) pupils at St James School in Exeter. Prior to the tutoring sessions, the undergraduates completed their lecture programme and safeguarding training. They then visited the school to observe afternoon lessons before delivering their tutoring sessions. In total, the undergraduates delivered nine hours of tutoring in groups of one to three. As part of their assessed work, they wrote a reflective log, documenting their learning. A key element of the scheme is that the undergraduates’ participation forms part of an accredited module. This is what makes the programme so powerful: it is low cost, high quality, scalable and sustainable.

Evaluation results 

An English language GCSE-aligned mark scheme was used to measure the impact of the tutoring sessions so that the pilot could answer the question: had the programme helped to raise academic levels? In the initial pilot, pupils were selected because they had been identified by their English teachers as not being able to write with accuracy. Pupils completed a pre-assessment that measured the range and accuracy of sentence structures and punctuation in their writing. In the pre-assessment, the average score showed that features were occasionally present but mostly inaccurate. In the post-assessment, the average score showed that features were now regularly used, mostly with accuracy. The average score for the pre-assessment was 10.9 out of 30. The average score for the post-assessment was 21 out of 30. This is a 93 per cent average increase in student scores – for Year 8 students – using a mark scheme matched to GCSE English language, after only nine hours of tutoring. While these results relate to a small pilot, they are impressive by any educational measure.

But the benefits were not limited to progress in writing accuracy. The overwhelming feedback from the pupils was that the tutoring had helped not only with their writing, but with their confidence in lessons, because it helped them know both what and how to write. All pupils stated in the post-tutoring survey that they enjoyed the tutoring programme and would recommend it to others. An unintended, though joyful, impact of the sessions was how much the pupils aspired to be – and began to believe they could be – like the undergraduates. Thus, not only were their aspirations to a university education raised, but also their expectation of one. 

Undergraduates meanwhile said that they would recommend the programme to others. Another benefit was the clarity created for the undergraduates with regards to teaching as a career. One of the six undergraduates decided that teaching was, in fact, not for her. Two undergraduates immediately signed up to for a teacher-training course. This suggests that such a scheme can act as a lever to recruit teachers. 

National scale-up 

An expanded pilot in 2023-24 is currently being evaluated across the South West and North East of England, considering the impact of paid and credit-earning tutors. This is based on collaboration with Uni Connect Partnerships, including Next Steps South West and the North East Uni Connect Programme, and a range of other universities working with around 40 schools. Survey work indicates that around a third of universities currently run a tutoring or mentoring programme for school or college learners – but many schemes that have not been evaluated could be informed by the Exeter tutoring model. 

One idea being explored is whether undergraduate tutoring could be part of an embedded service-learning model in universities, in which all undergraduates are required to contribute meaningful service to the community as part of their degrees. A country-wide service-learning module, delivering tutoring to our most under-resourced children, could help deliver social justice and would serve to instil a sense of civic duty in our undergraduates, not just our university leaders.

The dream is that one day a national tutoring service might involve thousands of students and pupils annually. It could be used to improve pupil’s foundational maths as well as developing emotional literacy. Tutoring delivered through universities and colleges has the potential to reach pupils in the farthest reaches of the country. 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. 

The benefits of deploying undergraduates as tutors has been recognised across the political divide. Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, has made positive remarks about its potential impact, while erstwhile higher-education minister Robert Halfon has said that undergraduate tutoring should be a key component of the government’s catch-up strategy. This is an unusual example of a genuine win-win-win approach: it improves academic progress, it increases the aspirations and expectations of under-resourced children and it helps to address the teacher recruitment crisis – all without the need for substantial government funding. This is an evidence-informed, tangible way for universities to raise attainment in their cities and regions, and a clear and self-sustaining way that policy can unlock this potential. What’s not to like?

Lindsay Skinner and Professor Lee Elliot Major OBE

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