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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Tutoring: Innovation in the oldest form of teaching

Going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, one-to-one tuition is often described as the oldest form of teaching in the western world.

More recently, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has highlighted the significant impact that this form of education can have, particularly in the fields of maths and literacy. But despite its long tradition and strong evidence-base, the tutoring industry is viewed by many people as elitist and patchy in quality.

And these people probably have a good point. Innovations that address these issues have recently surfaced in two areas of Nesta’s work. As part of our Digital Education programme, my colleague Oliver Quinlan has been working with Third Space Learning to explore the potential of remote one-to-one tuition in supporting primary age children at risk of underachievement in maths.

From the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund (CSAIF), we have awarded grants to three organisations – Action Tutoring, TeamUp and The Access Project – who all use adult volunteers as tutors for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The work of two other CSAIF grantees – City Year and TLG – also overlaps with this field. Both models (online and social action) provide the potential to transform the world of tutoring, offering the possibility of low cost, high quality tuition for those who need it most.

A couple of weeks ago here at Nesta, we convened a group of tutoring organisations from all sectors, with a wide range of delivery models to see what useful learning could be shared. As well as social action and online organisations, we also hosted a handful of private tutoring agencies. Different members of the group were targeting different audiences. There were also a range of business models in the room. Some were targeting their resources at children from low income backgrounds, whilst others were aiming at children with wealthier parents who could pay for their services directly. This diversity made for a lively and interesting discussion and left me thinking about four themes.

1. For what purpose?

Most social purpose organisations in this space are interested in closing the attainment gap between those who have more and those who have less. Most private tutoring agencies - whilst it’s not their explicit goal - are probably widening this gap. Some private agencies, like Tutorfair are trying to address both audiences, by time-banking volunteer hours from their paid tutors and offering free sessions to children who can’t afford them. This latter approach was seen as positive by some, who valued increasing opportunities for less well-off children more than levelling the playing field. But those who saw inequality as a problem in itself, argued that the net effect of the whole tutoring market as it stands is a probably a negative one.

2. What does good tutoring look like?

It was great to have such a variety of approaches in the room to learn from on this point. We didn’t draw up a list of the key characteristics of a top quality tutorial (although we might do that in the future) but we did explore some interesting themes:

  • In person vs. online: Does the Third Space Learning model (a shared screen but with no video link) allow children to relax and immerse themselves in a problem in a way that they couldn’t if an adult were ‘looking over their shoulder’? Is it possible to inspire and motivate over the internet?

  • Who should the tutor be?: Some organisations place an emphasis on high level subject knowledge, others – such as The Access Project who focus on corporate volunteers, or Franklin Scholars who use near-peers – consider other attributes when making a match. Each characteristic clearly has its own set of benefits.

  • Effective partnerships: All agreed that working effectively with schools and parents was key to success. Programmes commissioned by schools are most effective when teachers share data and help to set objectives for individual pupils. Tutors in the home need to tread carefully to balance parents’ sometimes demanding and personal goals with the needs and interests of the pupil as they and the pupil see them.

3. Evidence

Whilst the work done by the EEF in this field has been helpful, individual organisations still find it very difficult to collect robust evidence of impact for their own interventions, citing reasons such as insufficient scale and a lack of quality data from schools. We also discussed…

  • Impact beyond academic attainment: Is the world of educational interventions narrowing towards only that which can be easily proven to a high standard? Are interventions that develop crucial skills and character traits getting squeezed out by those with easier-to-prove outcomes such as a hike in grades?

  • New metrics: If some organisations are aiming to reduce inequality in this field, should we be looking at market penetration by socio-economic group as a key indicator for success?

  • Resourcing evaluations: Some people asked how small startups with limited resources can collect robust evidence. One place to start might be to look at the EEF’s latest call for projects. Nesta’s Standards of Evidence can also be a useful tool for structuring your thoughts.

4. Business models

One of the benefits of innovations using social action or technology is that they have a considerably lower unit cost than their more traditional peers (of the order of 10 times less in most cases). This makes the idea of universal access to one-to-one tuition a genuine possibility. Scaling these initiatives up will not be easy, however. One common barrier to success is the dysfunctional market that exists between schools (the major commissioner for interventions that support children from low income backgrounds) and external providers. In an increasingly fragmented education system, where head teachers have been made chief commissioners, there is no single effective platform that facilitates the buying and selling of high quality services in this field.

This is just the beginning of the conversation. If you are interested in engaging with us on this topic, please add your comments below or contact [email protected] or [email protected].

Photo credit: All Rights Reserved - Helen Yates


Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor

Programme Manager

Paddy was a Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab, leading on our work that uses social action to support young people to succeed.

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