National Tutoring Programme: learning to adapt, adapting to learn

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The last couple of years have been unprecedented for many people.  The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt for many years to come, not least by young people whose education has been massively disrupted.  

As the COVID pandemic gripped the world in March 2020, doors to schools began closing one by one. And as each door closed, students didn’t just lose access to the buildings. They lost face-to-face contact with their teachers and time with their peers and friends. Some lost family members or faced the challenges of parents losing their jobs. And many experienced the challenge of learning to learn in a new environment.

In response to this, the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) was formed as part of the government’s Education Recovery programme. Extensive evidence shows that tutoring is one of the most effective tools to support learning and accelerate pupil progress. The government invested £1bn to support up to six million, 15-hour tutoring packages, for pupils who needed support. 

“The programme started as one of many ideas in the early months of lockdown, when the lasting impact of school closures was being highlighted by many in the education sector, and evidence was suggesting particularly negative impacts for our disadvantaged pupils. Our concern was that any initiative needed to be evidence-based and sustainable. Tutoring is armed with a strong evidence base, a cost-effective way to boost attainment and supporting disadvantaged pupils.

This is how the NTP came into being, designed by the EEF alongside the Sutton Trust, Impetus, Nesta and Teach First. Set up at pace, the aim was to widen access to high-quality tutoring for those children most affected by the pandemic, by setting quality standards for tutoring that were in line with the evidence-base and offering this tutoring at a subsidised rate to schools.”

(Emily Yeomans, Director of NTP Tuition Partners)

Supported by People Powered Results

This was in-short rapid innovation at scale!  Nesta’s paper Making it Big (2014) identified four routes that social innovators take in order to scale up innovations.  

  • Influence and advise
  • Build a delivery network
  • Form strategic partnerships
  • Grow an organisation to deliver

The NTP was definitely no stranger to this way of working and had to do it rapidly.  In 2021/22 the NTP programme will be delivered by a different partner, so as the first year of delivery drew to a close, it felt like the right time for the year 1 team to reflect on the progress made, the opportunities gained and the challenges faced.

The EEF was supported by the People Powered Results (PPR) team (a Nesta Social Enterprise) to identify key insights.  

PPR used their Listen & Learn method to lead a series of interviews, surveys and facilitate a reflective workshop with the NTP team, the output of which has been used to structure and inform the first year report: Reflections on Scaling interventions to create system change.

PPR works to curate insights and our Listen & learn programmes shape recommendations for the future by supporting systems/places to explore and understand their world through the perspectives of the people experiencing and delivering services.  By gathering insights from people closest to the issues, we help to understand the challenges faced, those ahead and what the opportunities are going forward in order to adapt and grow.

With limited capacity to support this reflective work beyond the main evaluation, the PPR team has additional expertise around user/qualitative research which wasn’t available internally.  

“[There was value in] bringing in an external party to give a sense of perspective and help us identify all that we had achieved.”

Time to self-reflect

PPR believes that it is crucial to get the views of people closest to a challenge, to speak about the challenge.  We listen to people, hear their stories, surface their insights and help to make sense and amplify those voices.  Through this work an authentic voice emerges that allows deeper reflection and fresher, more robust actions to come to the surface.  

The interview process allowed time to self-reflect on a theme close to the participant.  Questions were very open-ended.  We allowed the space to ruminate on the last year, this often surfaced tensions to talk through but shaking that off leading to immense pride when participants realised the scale of what they had achieved.

There is definitely a feeling of freedom with this way of working giving people the opportunity to comment and contribute in multiple ways and on varied themes.

PPR works to create the conditions for learning through change.  The workshop carved out time to ensure everyone was involved and working on something collaboratively after setting the learning and reflective tone before focusing on the discussion of our key themes.

What did we learn?

So what now?  How would the NTP recommend this scale of work be approached for future programmes?  The final reflections report goes on to describe what was learnt through delivering the NTP during the year and what it might mean for other programmes working with schools and for policymakers.  

Pace and timing 

  • It is not always possible to wait for perfect
  • Feedback from users and stakeholders should be prioritised

Communication

  • Address any misconceptions rapidly
  • Time needed for adaptation and change 

Partnerships

  • Create a shared vision with partners
  • Support partners to strengthen their processes and systems

Scale and complexity

  • Manage stakeholder expectations carefully
  • Be realistic about what evaluation can achieve
  • Keenness to take advantage of new even in the most challenging circumstances

Continuous improvement

  • Acknowledge tensions between evidence-based design and the flexibility that is needed in systems
  • Design in data with feasibility and programme needs in mind

And working with PPR, what was that experience like?

Very positive – clear and responsive…we moved the work along quickly as a result.

…Clear, direct, completely reliable and plain speaking (in a good way) in the written outputs.   [It] was great to work with people who know what they are doing when it comes to this kind of research.

The first year of the National Tutoring Programme had to work through an insurmountable challenge.  Teams were constantly pushing, thinking, pausing and reflecting on what they had learnt before jumping back in and getting on with the job.  There was a real sense of honesty and catharsis, for this work was not easy, it was wrapped up in precast assumptions that had to be worked through, almost broken through.  Not only did the NTP have to scale an already complex challenge, they had to do this through a pandemic!

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