Government to fund private tutors for English schools

The government is set to announce a year-long national tutoring programme aimed at helping pupils in England to catch up on lost learning as a result of school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

Under the plans, schools will be funded to hire private tutors from approved agencies to deliver one-to-one and small group lessons to pupils who have fallen behind with their studies after months out of school. Many have not accessed any remote learning throughout lockdown.

The multi-million-pound programme, to be funded by government, is expected to involve thousands of tutors and will be delivered in schools, with a mixture of online and face-to-face sessions, designed to support and complement pupils’ regular school work.

The catch-up lessons will be available to pupils from all year groups in both primary and secondary and can be accessed by all schools, but will be targeted particularly at those serving disadvantaged communities where learning loss is likely to be greatest.

The detail of the comprehensive tuition scheme is being finalised ready to be announced later this week, as the government tries to head off scathing criticism of its handling of children’s education during the pandemic.

One study last week found that around 2 million children in the UK had done little or no schoolwork throughout.

Union leaders reacted cautiously to the proposals, saying ministers couldn’t just present ideas that “simply sound good”, and raised concerns about whether it was possible to scale up the provision of private tutoring.

Boris Johnson, under pressure during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, told MPs his education secretary Gavin Williamson would announce a “big catch-up plan” for pupils very shortly. “It’s vital that kids get the catch-up on the education they have lost,” he said.

The government is encouraging secondary schools to bring in pupils for a one-off face-to-face review meeting before the end of term to find out what progress the student has made and what additional support might be required going into the next academic year.

Some academy trusts are also looking at bringing in pupils a week early before the start of the autumn term to enable teachers to identify learning gaps and start preparing students for the rigours of academic study after a long gap.

Hamid Patel, chief executive of Star Academies trust that operates 29 state schools in England, said his group planned to help those most affected by the prolonged absence, including disadvantaged pupils and the year groups at significant transition points or facing exams next year.

“Our strategy to bridge widening gaps, foster resilience and set our pupils up for success is built on planned interventions over a 12-month period. We intend to use a set of measures including summer holiday camp, Saturday school and planned literacy and numeracy catch-up sessions within the school timetable.”

The government’s tuition programme is expected to be available from September and will form one of the main strands in the government’s education catch-up offer. “The overall catch-up package is quite significant,” said one source close to the project. “It will be long-term, at least a year. All schools will be able to access it, but it will be targeted at those with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils.”

Summer holiday schemes are more likely to focus on sports, arts and citizenship – rather than academic work – with the aim of supporting pupils’ mental health and physical wellbeing after being locked down at home throughout the pandemic.

The Sutton Trust, Education Endowment Foundation, Nesta and Impetus, who earlier this month jointly launched a new online tuition pilot to support disadvantaged pupils as schools began to open to more pupils, are expected to be involved in developing the catch-up tutoring programme.

Launching the pilot, they quoted evidence supporting the use of one-to-one and small-group tuition as a cost-effective way to help pupils who are struggling; regular sessions of 30 minutes, three to five times a week over six to 12 weeks, to achieve the best results, adding five additional months’ progress.

One of the four models being piloted involved the Tutor Trust – a not-for-profit charity which recruits and trains university students and recent graduates as tutors in the core subjects of maths, English and science – who provide one-to-one tuition in state schools. Co-founder and chief executive Nick Bent said: “We want to play our part in this national effort to help disadvantaged pupils catch up.”

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said it was vital that the government’s catch-up programme should be a long-term endeavour, rather than just a summer holiday scheme. “Where tuition can have value is where it’s done alongside the curriculum. If the government is going to be spending money, I would suggest that those programmes start in the autumn and are strongly aligned with the work a school is doing.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “With so much legitimate concern about the growing gap between advantaged and disadvantaged young people, it’s essential that any plans to address the issue are based in evidence of what works rather than what may simply sound good.

“The starting-point should be a review by the child’s teacher of where the child is now, and what their curriculum needs to look like. Schools should then be able to direct any additional resources, such as 1:1 after-school tuition, small group work, textbooks, to turbo-charge pupils’ learning.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We’ve got nothing against extra support for literacy and numeracy. The question with all these things is, if you are using private providers, how easy is it to scale up.”

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 of the UK’s leading paediatricians and child health specialists have told Boris Johnson he needs to urgently publish the government’s plans for children to return to school, in an unprecedented warning that their absence “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”.

The letter circulated by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) – the first time it has asked its members to sign a joint message to the prime minister – quickly attracted hundreds of signatures in support of its blunt message: “Left unchecked, Covid-19 will exacerbate existing problems and deepen structural social and health inequalities.”

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