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How scaling funds helped us grow from a start-up to a national charity

Action Tutoring has been working with Nesta and the Office for Civil Society at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) over the last five years. They have provided us with both financial and non-financial support, through two grants and with practical advice, helping us to grow from a small, start-up charity to a national charity with proven impact.

“My favourite thing about Action Tutoring is going back to the classroom and being more confident answering questions and taking part.”

Pupil, Sussex

We are an education charity supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve a meaningful level of academic attainment, with a view to helping them progress to further education, employment or training. We provide high-quality volunteer tutors to work with primary and secondary school pupils, increasing their subject knowledge, confidence and study skills.

We first worked with Nesta from 2013-14 when we were awarded a scaling grant from its Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. This grant enabled us to develop our volunteer recruitment process, substantially grow our programmes outside of London and effectively evaluate our impact, enabling us to develop a clear service model. As a result of our evaluation work, we achieved a level 3 on Nesta’s standards of evidence and were one of only two charities to achieve this level.

Volunteer Tutor in classroom

Volunteer tutor in classroom

“Seeing my pupils grow in confidence and ability has been an absolute delight. I feel really lucky to be a tutor with Action Tutoring”.

Orlagh, English tutor, London

We received ‘follow on funding’, in the form of a second grant, in 2017 which played a part to help expand our work across the country, particularly in primary schools; supporting more young people at an earlier stage in their education. Below we highlight four of the key benefits of this type of support.

1. A strategic and focused expansion

The ‘follow on funding’ supported us to continue our growth and develop partnerships with 46 new schools in 2017-18, our biggest expansion in partners so far. This meant we needed to recruit significantly more volunteers to support more pupils and manage more school relations than ever before. The funds gave us the certainty and means to establish a new staff role in our marketing team responsible volunteer engagement, and to cover the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) costs and travel expenses for our extra volunteers, allowing us to recruit almost 1,200 volunteers in 2017-18, over 400 more than the previous year.

Additionally, the original scaling programme funded our growth outside of London - to Birmingham and Bristol, and launching our primary work in Sussex and in Sheffield - driven by the belief that academic support for disadvantaged young people should not just be focused in the South East but across the country. And the follow on funding allowed us to focus and expand into a new city (Newcastle) as well. The North East is an area in desperate need of support; in 2016 only 38% of pupils receiving free school meals achieved an A*-C grade in maths and English, compared to 51% of pupils in London. When we met with school leaders and volunteer communities in the North East, the overriding message was that the area is crying out for more organisations to help. The support and encouragement from Nesta enabled us to target these communities and reach young people who would not have otherwise received this kind of provision.

“Action Tutoring has proved to be a very good way of supporting some of our disadvantaged pupils academically. I have been impressed with the support provided by Action Tutoring particularly the organisation, teaching resources and evaluation reports given to us. Our pupils have benefited from the enthusiasm and dedication of the of the volunteer tutors.”

Headteacher, Birmingham

2. Evaluating and fine-tuning our model

Both grants came with dedicated budgets for evaluation, as well as practical support and advice to find an evaluation partner and how best to apply evidence and evaluation insights, helping us really understand our model and giving us the confidence to say ‘no’ when necessary. Schools are inspiring spaces, full of driven motivated teachers and ambitious hard-working pupils. They are a pleasure to work with. But as we grew our number of schools, we found each had its own individual needs. Inevitably, as there are so many groups of pupils we could support in schools, we received requests asking us to help in ways that did not fit with our model. The more we evaluated and measured our impact, the more confident we felt about our model and how it can be applied most effectively. This did result in us not being able to meet the needs of some of the schools and, as a result, not helping every young person our schools put forward, but it did mean the pupils we did work with were getting the impactful and effective support they needed.

External evaluation has also given us, and funders and partners, confidence we are having impact. Disadvantaged pupils are, on average, 12 months behind their peers by the time they finish GCSEs at 16 years of age. Our external evaluators have found Action Tutoring improves pupils’ grades, on average, by half a grade (equivalent to 6 months additional progress) when receiving seven or more sessions.

Volunteer tutor and pupil together

Volunteer tutor and pupil together

3. Learning from others walking the same journey

Another challenge we found with our growth was working with a larger number of teachers. Every teacher we engage with is passionate about helping every pupil as best as they can, however, they have numerous competing demands on their time which can impact on their responsiveness to communications – particularly from an external organisation. We were often concerned that the lack of response to our emails was due to us frustrating teachers, so it was a relief to hear, when discussing with other charities supported by Nesta at a grantee event, that they too had encountered similar challenges. Meeting other charities working in similar sectors was a great benefit for us. Sharing and discussing challenges that often can feel like unmovable mountains in your charity, can suddenly feel more achievable. We have since simplified our communication with teachers, often holding focused face to face meetings, and keeping our attention on explaining the benefits of the programme and the impact it has on pupils.

4. Non-restrictive funding allows greater flexibility

Ensuring sufficient funding is secured is always a priority for charities, however attracting and securing this funding, especially the right type, can be a challenge. Understandably, funders want to support front line costs that directly impact young people, but charities also need to fund core running and office costs. The Nesta grants were focused on supporting both sides of our charity. For example, providing funds to recruit an additional member of our volunteer recruitment team, increasing our capacity to recruit more volunteers; but also funding additional training for our Senior Management Team (SMT), which has been crucial to the growth of our organisation. This investment to help them become better leaders and managers will impact our charity now, and as we grow.

“I would say that my interactions with my tutors are the best part of my job! I think that they get a great sense of achievement through passing their knowledge on to their pupils, as well as sharing their tutoring expertise with other volunteers.”

Stevie, Newcastle Programme Coordinator, Action Tutoring

So, to finish, the grant from Nesta and DMCS, along with backing from our other funders, has enabled us to provide tutoring support for over 6,500 young people since 2014. We are confident that this help will ensure they achieve the grades they need to go on to further training, education or employment and not to get trapped in the spiral of unemployment. And we have ambitious plans in the future. Building on the support Nesta has given us, we are aiming to support over 3,500 pupils per year across eight cities by 2021. Reaching even more pupils across the country and giving them the opportunities to gain the grades they need to have options in life.

To find out more about getting involved as a volunteer tutor, school or funder visit www.actiontutoring.org.uk.

This blog is part of Nesta's Field Notes series, where we showcase insights and lessons from the field of social innovation from a different innovator each month, in their own words. To find more innovation Field Notes, click here.


“The Report Card 2017/18”, Fair Education Alliance, September 2018

“Action Tutoring’s small-group tuition programme”, NISER, March 2016

“The Attainment Gap”, Education Endowment Foundation, 2017


Adam Geach

Adam joined Action Tutoring as the Regional Manager. He manages the Action Tutoring programme team outside of London.