This blog was kindly contributed by Chris Davies, a third year Classics undergraduate at New College, Oxford. You can find Chris on Twitter @chris_davies5.
For educational policymakers, the benefits of small-group tuition for school students have long been recognised. At its most effective, regular one-to-one tuition for a period of 12 weeks has been shown to deliver five additional months’ progress on average for the student. In April 2020, the Sutton Trust recommended that disadvantaged pupils had access to additional small-group tuition to reduce the impact of school closures, and the UK Government has since responded with the creation of the National Tutoring Programme. This aims to fund small group tuition, led by professional tutors, for 250,000 children in the next academic year.
University students can also play a valuable role as volunteer tutors – having recently ‘been on the other end’ themselves, they still have a close familiarity with GCSE and A-Level style learning. Also, being of a relatively similar age, student volunteers can more easily connect with pupils and act as mentors. Importantly, many students will do this for free.
When conducted with appropriate training and preparation, volunteer tuition programmes have been found to offer reciprocal benefits for tutors and students. Though not enough research has looked specifically at volunteering led by university students, other meta-analyses (including programmes led by university students as examples) have found volunteer intervention to have positive effects on student learning.
During 2018/19 Schools Plus (the student-based initiative I volunteer with) placed 336 tutors for nearly 800 young people in five university towns and 95 per cent of the schools involved felt that student volunteers added capacity to their organisations. The benefits of such programmes to the student volunteers are also clear: 90 per cent of community partners noted increased confidence in the students who did volunteer.
All this is particularly relevant in the context of the pandemic. In the past year more 18-to-25 year-olds have been volunteering, with volunteer tuition receiving more attention, facilitated partly by the creation of new initiatives in response to the crisis. The Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, founded by three university students in April last year, recruited over 4000 volunteer tutors. Existing initiatives like Schools Plus responded by creating fresh resources for use by tutors on Zoom and pairing local secondary pupils with university students for regular online tuition.
Increased participation among students should be explained in part by the response to COVID, but the online format is also partly responsible. Having volunteered as a tutor both in-person and over Zoom, I firmly believe that an online format is more likely to result in a better educational outcome for the students who are tutored. This conclusion is not based on arguments about differences in interface, but on the fact that an online format removes the inevitable logistical difficulties associated with in-person volunteering.
Volunteering as a tutor in a number of local schools from 2018-20, I became aware of the issues that university students face when tutoring in-person:
- Intermittent and unreliable sessions. University students are limited by short terms, with many returning home or losing access to accommodation in the holidays. Bank-holidays or half-term holidays inevitably cause cancellations and sessions have to run immediately after the end of the school day with little flexibility for rearrangement.
- In-person tuition requires the support of school staff. This usually means, for the sake of efficiency, that volunteer-tutors attend the school in groups. This means that the absence of one tutor or student in any given session may force tutors to change session plans to incorporate additional students or tutors. Waiting for all members of a group to receive DBS certificates can lead to situations where volunteers with the appropriate training and certifications have to wait months before starting.
- Reliance on limited public transport. The added time spent on public transport can make volunteering an unnecessarily time-consuming commitment for the many students who have no alternative. From my experience, I would spend at least an hour and a half per week travelling to and from schools – longer than the sessions themselves!
An online format, by removing these key issues, allows for more regular and reliable sessions. This has a number of positive results for both tutors and pupils:
- It becomes easier for tutors to understand the needs of students and personalise their teaching.
- Tutors can more easily build the sense of rapport and mutual obligation which encourages continued student participation.
- Tutors can more easily witness their volunteering having a positive impact.
For these reasons I have felt my volunteering online to have been a more worthwhile experience, and I believe there is much to be said for keeping most volunteer tuition online after the pandemic.
Of course, any change to an online format raises new questions in relation to the digital divide. Pre-existing differences in technological access were exacerbated during the pandemic, with many pupils reported to be lacking the proper resources to access the internet. In a January 2021 report by the Sutton Trust, 52 per cent of teachers ‘cited a faster rollout of laptops as the single most helpful intervention to help disadvantaged pupils’ during school closures. When volunteer tuition moved online last year, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students, simply because they lacked the technology, would not have been able to access it.
However, the situation has since improved, and the Department for Education has supplied 1.3 million devices to disadvantaged students as of May. This isn’t to suggest that problems with unequal technological access are a thing of the past, but there have clearly been improvements as a result of the pandemic. Whether these improvements continue depends on the continued prioritisation of digital access for education after things return to normal.
Right now, at least, we should be encouraged by the fact that more students than ever before have the resources to access online tuition. It should also be remembered that access to in-person tuition led by student volunteers is limited to pupils in university towns. In this respect, tutoring conducted online has the clear potential to reach students regardless of location and be more widely accessible.
The Government have recognised the vital role professional tutoring could play in helping education recover from the pandemic, but policymakers in universities, schools and government must also pay attention to the newfound potential of student-led volunteer tuition. An online format leads to more impactful tutoring and has a wider potential reach. The pandemic has shown that many students are interested in volunteering as tutors. The task – and opportunity – for educational initiatives and policymakers is to maintain and find more formal ways of capitalising on this increase in volunteers, so that more students can access beneficial free tuition. Keeping an online format as the norm is an important first step.