Volunteer tutoring with less advantaged pupils

By Rob Reynolds, Action Tutoring Volunteer, and Director of External Relations, Bedales School

In my role overseeing partnerships at Bedales School (an independent coeducational boarding school), I was keen to explore additional ways we could respond to the COVID pandemic in supporting young people. The school already had in place successful partnerships: we worked with a local primary school, providing additional classroom space for them to keep their bubbles apart, and providing a willing workforce and materials to improve the outdoor landscape. We have an ongoing collaboration with a local state academy on a variety of academic projects including hosting a ‘Question Time’ event with our East Hampshire Member of Parliament, students and head teachers which was switched to online delivery this year, and collaborating on Teacher Assessed Grades. Early in the pandemic, our Catering Manager introduced a food delivery service for vulnerable people in the local community, sourcing and delivering essential food supplies. We even offered a library service to give people access to fresh reading material.

Having heard in November 2020 of the launch of the Government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to support disadvantaged pupils to recover from the educational disruption caused by COVID, I decided to research tutoring options. Even before the crisis, disadvantaged pupils were, on average, already 18 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers by the end of secondary school. Projections suggest school closures will widen this gap further; many of the factors that feed into this inequality have been made much worse by the pandemic. For months while schools were closed, children and young people did not have equal access to learning and, for many, the structure and spaces that support their development and wellbeing suddenly disappeared.

I registered as a volunteer with Action Tutoring, selected as a Tuition Partner for the NTP. Action Tutoring is a national education charity supporting pupils to achieve a meaningful level of academic attainment, helping them to progress to further education, employment or training. Specifically, their focus is on improving the grades of individual pupils: for the first half of the 2019/20 school year, Action Tutoring pupils made an average of 12% progress from their initial assessment, sat at the start of their programme, to their progress assessment six months later.

Although I am not in a teaching role at Bedales with responsibility for communications, alumni relations, partnerships, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and oversight of marketing and fundraising, I was keen to put my maths degree to good use by making a contribution, and also testing out this method of online tutoring as a possible route for other Bedales staff to contribute. In my early working life I was a naval instructor officer teaching maths to trainee engineers. I subsequently completed the training provided by Action Tutoring where I met (online) a variety of other volunteers including undergraduates, accountants, and serving and retired teachers. Training included a familiarisation with Action Tutoring’s chosen virtual learning platform, Vedamo, safeguarding training and of course, undergoing the necessary Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks to work with young people.

Prior to the pandemic, Action Tutoring operated in specific geographical areas of the country where they had identified the greatest need for learning support and were well positioned to be able to pivot to online tutoring which enabled them to reach more schools and young people. Action Tutoring’s latest impact report which covers the period at the start of the pandemic highlights that in autumn 2020 it had over 80 online programmes underway, as well as delivering face to face. With the school closures in early 2021, the charity was able to quickly adapt its provision so that over 130 schools had online programmes up and running in a matter of weeks, providing tutoring support to pupils whilst they were at home.

Having completed all my checks, I was keen to get underway and was quickly allocated a state school in Chester supporting students taking GCSE Maths. Action Tutoring has developed the necessary resources to ensure a consistent quality of tutoring, which helped me familiarise myself with the curriculum and dust off any maths cobwebs. They also provided a local coordinator to act as the liaison point with the school and to work with the teachers to supervise the actual tutoring sessions which took place online at school, but after school had officially finished. In my case, that meant a weekly commitment tutoring two Year 11 students initially for an hour on Fridays from 3–4 pm, which was then increased to 1.5 hours.

Once the initial cohort of students had finished their GCSE Maths, I was then put to work with Year 10 pupils. The significant disruption for students and schools over the last 18 months encouraged Action Tutoring and the school to see how else they could support their pupils and a couple of catch-up Saturday morning virtual sessions were introduced from pupils’ homes, under the supervision of their parents.

I found the whole experience extremely rewarding. There were certainly challenges. It was difficult to establish rapport and really help the young people if they struggled with their own motivation to be doing extra maths outside lessons! The time seemed to fly by in sessions, and we also had to cope with connection difficulties, but I always took the view that these young people were going to benefit by actually doing maths during these periods rather than something else. We persevered, and by the time the programme finished for the Summer holidays, I felt the pupils were responding well and benefiting from the experience of this extra maths support. I think they appreciated that there were people out there who wanted to supplement their school work with their regular teachers to help them achieve their full potential. Seeing the young people benefit from this extra time and effort also gave me my own sense of achievement.

In terms of the funding of the NTP, Action Tutoring charges schools a fee for the cost of running its programmes, which is heavily subsidised by its own fundraising. Last academic year, the schools receiving the tutoring service contributed 25% of the cost of the programme, with the remainder covered by government funding through the NTP. Volunteers like myself are unpaid but Action Tutoring clearly has expenses such as developing teaching resources, running the virtual learning platform, staffing, and volunteer on-boarding.

Action Tutoring specialises in providing maths and English support at GCSE and primary levels. If you feel able to help, I thoroughly recommend it and you can find out more on their website here: https://actiontutoring.org.uk/. The whole process of volunteering is pretty smooth and you will soon be set to work helping hopefully keen young pupils. And for those of us who are not regular teachers, it gives us a taste of how rewarding and enjoyable educating others can be.