How schools can get impact from tutoring programs

How schools can get impact from tutoring programs

In June 2020, the Grattan Institute called on governments to send a battalion of 100,000 tutors into schools to conduct intensive small-group sessions on reading and maths.

The call to action came amid concerns that students were falling behind due to the lockdowns imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And as time would tell, these concerns were warranted.

In September, a major survey of parents found that 1.25 million Australian students had fallen behind in their schoolwork during the remote learning period.

In NSW, students had fallen, on average, three to four months behind in year 3 reading, and two to three months behind in year 5 reading and numeracy. Year 9 students were up to four months behind in numeracy.

The hardest hit were disadvantaged students, who were already struggling to improve their learning outcomes According to a Grattan Institute report estimated the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and the rest widens three times more quickly during remote schooling.

Fortunately, some governments have swung into action, announcing a raft of measures to help students catch up on lost learning.

Tutors at the ready

In NSW and Victoria, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on tutoring programs that will be rolled out in both primary and secondary schools, reaching more than 200,000 students in Victoria and 290,000 in NSW.

In an article published in The Conversation, Julie Sonnemann, Fellow, School Education, Grattan Institute and Jordana Hunter, director of the Institute’s School Education Program, explained how schools can get the most out of the government’s tutoring program.

“Teachers will need to accurately identify which students have been struggling and why. They will need to make judgements using a range of assessments, including student tests, classroom observations or student interviews,” they wrote.

“Even though teachers make these assessments every day in regular teaching, it is hard to do well. Some teachers will need extra support to do this, such as guidance from expert teachers or assessment specialists. It is a key step to get right”.

Next, say Sonnemann and Hunter, rigorous selection of tutors, and good training, will be key.

“Evidence shows intensive tutoring will work best, with short (for example 30 minutes) but regular sessions [between 3-to-5 times a week], over a sustained period [between 10-to-20 weeks],” they wrote.

“Close working relationships between tutors and teachers will help ensure students get the support they need. And perhaps most importantly, the quality of the teaching by the teacher and tutor will be critical”.

Sonnemann and Hunter said teachers are likely to be swamped this year, and education departments should provide extra support to help teachers guide tutors as needed.

“Guidance could include information on structured literacy and numeracy programs to help teachers and tutors adopt good practice, especially for students who have complex learning needs,” they wrote.

“Programs include well-specified training, materials and teaching approaches. For literacy, for example, these programs can provide extra support on proven ways of teaching oral language skills or certain aspects of reading”.

Sonnemann and Hunter said education departments will need to keep an eye on the quality of candidates coming forward for tutoring roles, given a big workforce is being recruited fast with tight constraints on who can apply.

“If the pool of tutor candidates needs to be made bigger, evidence shows university graduates from a range of fields, not just education, can be good tutors too,” they wrote.

“Schools will also need to take care to ensure students do not feel stigma about being identified for tutoring”.

Sonnemann and Hunter said teachers will need to pay attention to student confidence, and avoid negative messaging or separating students on an ongoing basis, which can have negative impacts.

“Parents can explain to their child that extra tutoring support will help them catch up and feel more confident at school”.

‘Don’t forget isolated students’

One program catering for isolated distance education students in remote Queensland, Victoria and NSW is asking retired teachers, academics and tutors to help struggling students catch up.

The Aussie Helpers Volunteer for Isolated Students Education (AHVISE) program is funded by donations, which covers the cost of travel for tutors.

The program offers both remote and in-person tutoring sessions, but in-person tutors get to experience a completely different way of life as they can stay on the farms with the families.

“The AHVISE program only exists due to the support and kindness of our many volunteers, and the financial support from the Aussie Helpers Charity,” Aussie Helpers CEO, Tash Kocks, said.

AHVISE tutor Aleksandra Pozder said one-on-one learning provided by a tutor complements remote education and can substantially improve academic achievement, curiosity and enthusiasm.

“Our classrooms have changed in recent years and teaching methods, technology, subject choices and assessment metrics have all transformed education for the students of today,” Pozder said.

“But one thing remains constant: learning has always been enhanced by personal, one-to-one support, and students who receive personal tutoring perform better than those who don't”.

Equity must be the overarching goal

In December 2020, Teach For Australia (TFA), a not-for-profit organisation which aims to address educational inequity in Australia, launched The Tutor Network, an initiative to boost tutoring in schools across the country.

Via The Tutor Network online portal, schools and tutors can access free training, guides, templates and other evidence-based resources that have been provided by subject matter specialists and expert practitioners.

Melodie Potts Rosevear, TFA CEO, and Peter Goss, former School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute, said the evidence shows that to be effective, tutoring must be precise.

“It must be focused on clear learning objectives and a supplement to the teaching that is already occurring. It must be regular [ideally 3 times per week] and sustained [ideally over a term or more],” Potts Rosevear and Goss told The Educator.

“Additionally, students’ progress must be measured and discussed regularly with their teachers, to ensure learning is reinforced and tutoring complements what is happening in classrooms”.

Above all, say Potts Rosevear and Goss, the tutors need to be well trained, and to understand the similarities and the differences between tutoring and teaching.

An analysis by the Grattan Institute showed that investing in tutoring as part of the COVID catch-up is worth it in its own right. However, Potts Rosevear and Goss say that if it proves its impact in 2021, large scale in-school tutoring could become something more.

“Ongoing investment to tutor disadvantaged students would be a major new tool to improve equity in schooling,” they said.

“In response to the unthinkable year that was 2020, the Victorian and NSW Governments made a previously unthinkable investment in the future”.

Potts Rosevear and Goss said getting it right will help a cohort of students, including many of the most vulnerable, but they hope for more.

“Learning how to use tutoring to support regular teaching could help all future generations, and help close that gap between the educational haves and have nots”.