Covid-19, learning loss and volunteer tutors - RSA

Covid-19, learning loss and volunteer tutors


  • Picture of Susannah Hardyman FRSA
    Susannah Hardyman FRSA
  • Education
  • Social mobility
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As millions of children lose valuable learning time at school, Susannah Hardyman FRSA explores the potential of volunteer tutors to support the most disadvantaged pupils.

March 2020 marked a seismic shift in education, with schools nationwide closing their doors to all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, schools grappled to implement online solutions in a bid to provide effective teaching and learning to pupils. The shift also prompted unprecedented demand from affluent families for private tutoring, an industry with an annual income of over £2bn.  

Many parents who could afford to were, it seems, keen to use online support to shield children from summer learning loss, the phrase used to describe children’s loss of academic skills and knowledge over the long summer holiday. For poorer pupils, this is often explained by a lack of learning resources and access to social and cultural capital when out of school. While many children in more affluent families saw parents able to act on their concerns about the current lengthy break from school, it is their less affluent peers who will be likely worst affected. For the 28% of pupils in state education deemed as disadvantaged (eligible for the pupil premium, meaning they have been eligible for free school meals at some point in the last six years), the lasting effects of the crisis on their education are likely to be far worse. These are pupils who are less likely to have access to high bandwidth broadband and for whom 40% do not have a quiet and appropriately furnished space to work in.

Motivation is also set to prove a challenge. We all know that it is far easier to engage with a pupil in person than it is to motivate them to work online, especially if their parents are not available to support and encourage them or that child is struggling academically. Younger pupils in particular are most likely to need support from parents to engage with online learning. As one primary headteacher put it to me recently, “We are suddenly expecting parents to become teaching assistants.” Forcing attendance of online sessions will, be highly difficult to enforce or even encourage. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are not less able, but lack of access to tools and resources and this means only 41% of pupils eligible for the pupil premium pass English and maths GCSEs, compared to 69% of all other pupils.

Many in education are predicting that the current crisis will further widen the attainment gap. While schools are doing all they can now to mitigate this, disadvantaged children are going to need more support than ever to catch up. That support will need to take many forms, but tutoring is an effective intervention that can play a big role in raising attainment. 

Action Tutoring is an education charity that works in partnership with schools to provide tutoring in English and maths to disadvantaged pupils, using high-quality volunteer tutors and has strong evidence of impact. Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds: students; those in employment and the retired. Last year the youngest volunteer was 18 and the oldest was 82. All applications are carefully vetted and volunteers attend training and have to be DBS checked before they can begin tutoring in a partner school. Once placed in a school they are given extensive resources to support their tutoring – developed by curriculum experts – and receive ongoing support and training.

While short-term mitigations can be made to minimise learning loss, catch up support is going to be vital. Action Tutoring are working with other organisations to call on the government to provide catch-up funding for disadvantaged pupils, in addition to the pupil premium funding. This could be used by schools to fund interventions such as tutoring, allowing teaching assistants to have more time for one-to-one work, or for any other support, academic or emotional, that pupils may need to get back on track with their learning. As an organisation, Action Tutoring will shortly be ready to train volunteers online, so we can have as many tutors ready to go as soon as we can. Finally, we are fast accelerating plans for online tutoring delivery so that if schools are not back to normal in the autumn, or if volunteers are not able to go in to schools, we have a credible alternative to offer to our pupils and schools. Piloting and testing for this is beginning in May.   

Exams may have been scrapped for this year but learning is not just for exams. Good standards in English and maths in particular are crucial to progressing well in life. The immediate volunteer and charity efforts are hugely encouraging but as many are saying, this is going to be a marathon not a sprint. Volunteers and charities will be needed more than ever before to help schools pick up the pieces and enable pupils, whatever their background, to flourish. Surely there is huge potential for those volunteer efforts to continue well beyond the immediate needs, as the country and especially some of the most vulnerable in society, recover from this.

If you are interested in volunteering with Action Tutoring or making a donation to support our vital work, please go to:

Susannah Hardyman is CEO of Action Tutoring


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