To Tutor or not to Tutor, that is the Question …

Tutoring – Source: Neonbrand on Unsplash

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) is now allegedly “up and running”. This bold initiative aims, in its own words, to make “high quality tutoring available to schools to help disadvantaged pupils whose education has been affected by school closures”.

The website for the scheme has been created to “support schools to access the Tuition Partners …” whose aim it is to “support teachers and schools in providing a sustained response to the coronavirus pandemic and to provide a longer term contribution to closing the attainment gap”.

I’d like to share with you my experience so far of this scheme, as an aspiring tutor. It has all the hallmarks of any of this government’s responses to the pandemic. It has a veneer of professionalism atop a veritable Eton mess of providers, partners, contracts and bureaucracy for which you need the tenacity of a limpet to get through. I’ve given up: let me explain why.

I’m an experienced teacher, tutor, scribe and reader

Admittedly I haven’t taught any children for about 4 years. I was part of the exodus of my generation of teachers from the profession for reasons which are well documented elsewhere and I won’t go into here. However, I worked as a scribe and reader for A-level exams in 2018 at a large comprehensive school. At that time I updated my safeguarding training and did the channel anti-terrorism training too. My other work since then has been with vulnerable adults of one sort or another and has involved me delivering training, workshops and facilitating meetings. Having worked for about 8 years at the start of my career in secondary education, I’ve since trained hundreds of teaching assistants. From 2008 until 2016 I worked as an intervention tutor for the hospital education service and the virtual school for ‘looked after children’ in my county, working with kids in school, out of school, at home or wherever. I covered all age groups, all subjects, all abilities. I know my stuff.

Now I gave up doing this work in 2016 because, in the western county in which I worked, they outsourced tutoring to an employment agency. In Birmingham. At first I didn’t get paid at all, then I was made to set up my own company in order to get paid (minus a large admin fee). Having been placed with the agency, I no longer had any direct contact with the support workers responsible for my pupils. This meant I had difficulty finding out what was going on with my charges or the schools they attended. I could no longer ask for resources and, most bizarrely, nobody asked me for feedback on my pupils’ progress. So I left.

Fast forward to 2020.After a career break in which life intervened, I began in earnest to search for work. I had a few irons in the fire when the pandemic hit. Nothing had worked out though, so I thought I’d sign up to receive notifications about the NTP. Interestingly I found out about it initially because my 20 year old, who has a place at Uni next year and NO teaching experience, was encouraged by UCAS to apply.

So I considered applying to the NTP

At the beginning of November the NTP went live and I was encouraged to get in touch with tuition partners. There were 20 listed for my area. I went for 11. I filled in enquiry forms and waited. Half of them have not replied at all. One agency was very keen. I spoke to a recruiter who spent most of the call trying to persuade me to work on general supply at a school a long way from where I live. I said I wanted to tutor for the NTP and agreed to send my CV. A (Microsoft) ‘Teams’ slot for an interview was emailed to me, then the recruiter, having read my CV, called me back. As I hadn’t taught since 2016, I wouldn’t have the required up to date references from schools, so probably couldn’t work as a tutor. I explained about my work as a scribe in 2018. She said she’d check with HR, it would probably be fine, she’d get back to me if it wasn’t. She didn’t turn up to the Teams interview. No apology or explanation. The next morning I received an email from the same agency asking me to refer colleagues for a reward of £250. Followed by another Teams invite, with no mention of the previous no show. I declined the invite.

Read more articles from West England Bylines here >>>

One other agency then invited me to a webinar, which I attended. It was explained that all aspiring tutors must complete channel awareness, safeguarding and a mandatory ‘how to tutor’ programme. The first two had to be completed unpaid before any offer of work would be made. The ‘how to tutor’ programme was mandatory for all, regardless of qualifications or experience and must be completed when signing up for the agency, again unpaid, whether any work was offered or not. I asked how long it would take me, and was told six weeks. Funnily enough, I’m not that keen. There are various providers on the NTP scheme who are willing to take volunteer tutors, which is admirable, but I’m looking for paid work. This agency keeps offering me ‘free quality training’, inviting me to more and more webinars on a daily basis.

After all this, I’m feeling less limpet and more crab, wanting to scuttle off and hide under a rock.

Each of these partners is offering a slightly different product to schools, in terms of sessions, times, numbers and number of participants. The schools can choose from a dazzling array of options. Or maybe not. In amongst all of these emails and notifications I’ve noticed that the language has changed over the last month from “tutors can start in school in the next two weeks” to “schools are showing interest”.

So, how should tutoring be run?

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, responded to the announcement of the NTP in June this year thus:

“Could the £350 million of funding be better used by simply providing it to schools to fund catch up programmes, rather than subsidising tutoring organisations? … we are confused by the assertion that head-teachers will decide how the money is spent, when this is immediately followed by an expectation that it should be used on small group tuition”.

What I learnt in all my years as a teacher, tutor and trainer is that remedial intervention work is most successful when the tutor can form a professional and productive relationship with the pupils, the school and their teachers. As a tutor I need to be seen as part of the team supporting that individual, not an outsider coming in with little time to discuss progress so far, and no right of access to the resources I need to do my job.

The framework put in place for this programme is complicated, overly bureaucratic and completely off-putting to tutors who want to just get into schools and help. It’s hard not to predict the headlines in a few months’ time of poor take up and little progress made. Schools are firefighting right now, staff are exhausted.

Schools should be given the money to spend on interventions as they wish, at a time and pace to suit their own needs and those of the children in their care. Tutors don’t want or need the ‘barrier’ of an agency between them and the work. They should be employed directly by schools, each partner professionally accountable to each other. If this doesn’t happen, then ultimately it’s the poorest pupils, the most left behind, that will be hit hardest.

Ed: For more background, read this Times Educational Supplement (TES) article on schools having to pay 25% of tutoring costs.