Large-Scale Tutoring in England: Countering Effects of School Closures

The government of England recently announced an investment of £1 billion to provide tutoring and other services to help the many students whose educational progress has been interrupted by Covid-19 school closures. This is the equivalent of $1.24 billion, and adjusting for the difference in populations, it is like a U.S. investment of $7.44 billion, even larger than the equivalent of the similar Dutch investment recently announced.

Both England and the Netherlands have Covid-19 disease and death rates like those of the U.S., and all three countries are unsure of when schools might open in the fall, and whether they will open fully or partially when they do. All three countries have made extensive use of online learning to help students keep up with core content. However, participation rates in online learning have been low, especially for disadvantaged students, who often lack access to equipment and assistance at home. For this reason, education leaders in all of these countries are very concerned that academic achievement will be greatly harmed, and that gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students will grow. The difference is that Dutch and English schools are taking resolute action to remedy this problem, primarily by providing one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring nationwide. The U.S. has not yet done this, except for an initiative in Tennessee.

blog_6-25-20_brittutor_500x425The English initiative has two distinct parts. £650 million will go directly to schools, with an expectation that they will spend most of it on one-to-four tutoring to students who most need it. The schools will mostly use the money to hire and train tutors, mainly student teachers and teaching assistants.

The remaining £350 million will go to fund an initiative led by the Education Endowment Foundation. In this National Tutoring Programme (NTP), 75% of the cost of tutoring struggling students will be subsidized. The tutoring may be either one-to-one or one-to-small group, and will be provided by organizations with proven programs and proven capacity to deliver tutoring at scale in primary and secondary schools. EEF is also carrying out evaluations of promising tutoring programs in various parts of England.

What Do the English and Dutch Tutoring Initiatives Mean for the U.S.?

The English and Dutch tutoring initiatives serve as an example of what wealthy nations can do to combat the learning losses of their students in the Covid-19 emergency. By putting these programs in place now, these countries have allowed time to organize their ambitious plans for fall implementation, and to ensure that the money will be wisely spent. In particular, the English National Tutoring Programme has a strong emphasis on the use of tutoring programs with evidence of effectiveness. In fact, the £350 million NTP could turn out to be the largest pragmatic education investment ever made anywhere designed to put proven programs into widespread use, and if all goes well, this aspect of the NTP could have important implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.

The U.S. is only now beginning to seriously consider tutoring as a means of accelerating the learning of students whose learning progress has been harmed by school closures. There have been proposals to invest in tutoring in both houses of Congress, but these are not expected to pass. Unless our leaders embrace the idea of intensive services to help struggling students soon, schools will partially or fully open in the fall into a very serious crisis. The economy will be in recession and schools will be struggling just to keep qualified teachers in every classroom. The amount of loss in education levels will become apparent. Yet there will not be well-worked-out or well-funded means of enabling schools to remedy the severe losses sure to exist, especially for disadvantaged students. These losses could have long-term negative effects on students’ progress, as poor basic skills reduce students’ abilities to learn advanced content, and undermine their confidence and motivation. Tutoring or other solutions would still be effective if applied later next school year, but by then the problems will be even more difficult to solve.

Perhaps national or state governments or large private foundations could at least begin to pilot and evaluate tutoring programs capable of going to scale. This would be immediately beneficial to the students involved and would facilitate effective implementation and scale-up when government makes the needed resources available. But action is needed now. Gaps in achievement between middle class and disadvantaged students were already the most important problem in American education, and the problem has certainly worsened. This is the time to see that all students receive whatever it takes to get back on a track to success.

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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Evidence-Based Reform and the Multi-Academy Trust

Recently, I was in England to visit Success for All (SFA) schools there. I saw two of the best SFA schools I’ve ever seen anywhere, Applegarth Primary School in Croyden, south of London, and Houldsworth Primary School in Sussex, southeast of London. Both are very high-poverty schools with histories of poor achievement, violence, and high staff turnover. Applegarth mostly serves the children of African immigrants, and Houldsworth mostly serves White students from very poor homes. Yet I saw every class in each school and in each one, children were highly engaged, excited, and learning like crazy. Both schools were once in the lowest one percent of achievement in England, yet both are now performing at or above national norms.

In my travels, I often see outstanding Success for All schools. However, in this case I learned about an important set of policies that goes beyond Success for All, but could have implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.

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Both Applegarth and Houldsworth are in multi-academy trusts (MATs), the STEP Trust and the Unity Trust, respectively. Academies are much like charter schools in the U.S., and multi-academy trusts are organizations that run more than one academy. Academies are far more common in the U.K. than the U.S., constituting 22% of primary (i.e., elementary) schools and 68% of secondary schools. There are 1,170 multi-academy trusts, managing more than 5,000 of Britain’s 32,000 schools, or 16%. Multi-academy trusts can operate within a single local authority (school district) (like Success Academies in New York City) or may operate in many local authorities. Quite commonly, poorly-performing schools in a local authority, or stand-alone academies, may be offered to a successful and capable multi-academy trust, and these hand-overs explain much of the growth in multi-academy trusts in recent years.

What I saw in the STEP and Unity Trusts was something extraordinary. In each case, the exceptional schools I saw were serving as lead schools for the dissemination of Success for All. Staff in these schools had an explicit responsibility to train and mentor future principals, facilitators, and teachers, who spend a year at the lead school learning about SFA and their role in it, and then taking on their roles in a new SFA school elsewhere in the multi-academy trust. Over time, there are multiple lead schools, each of which takes responsibility to mentor new SFA schools other than their own. This cascading dissemination strategy, carried out in close partnership with the national SFA-UK non-profit organization, is likely to produce exceptional implementations.

I’m sure there must be problems with multi-academy trusts that I don’t know about, and in the absence of data on MATs throughout Britain, I would not take a position on them in general. But based on my limited experience with the STEP and Unity Trusts, this policy has particular potential as a means of disseminating very effective forms of programs proven effective in rigorous research.

First, multi-academy trusts have the opportunity and motivation to establish themselves as effective. Ordinary U.S. districts want to do well, of course, but they do not grow (or shrink) because of their success (or lack of it). In contrast, a multi-academy trust in the U.K. is more likely to seek out proven programs and implement them with care and competence, both to increase student success and to establish a “brand” based on their effective use of proven programs. Both STEP and Unity Trusts are building a reputation for succeeding with difficult schools using methods known to be effective. Using cascading professional developing and mentoring from established schools to new ones, a multi-academy trust can build effectiveness and reputation.

Although the schools I saw were using Success for All, any multi-academy trust could use any proven program or programs to create positive outcomes and expand its reach and influence. As other multi-academy trusts see what the pioneers are accomplishing, they may decide to emulate them. One major advantage possessed by multi-academy trusts is that much in contrast to U.S. school districts, especially large, urban ones, multi-academy trusts are likely to remain under consistent leadership for many years. Leaders of multi-academy trusts, and their staff and supporters, are likely to have time to transform practices gradually over time, knowing that they have the stable leadership needed for long-term change.

There is no magic in school governance arrangements, and no guarantee that many multi-academy trusts will use the available opportunities to implement and perfect proven strategies. Yet by their nature, multi-academy trusts have the opportunity to make a substantial difference in the education provided to all students, especially those serving disadvantaged students. I look forward to watching plans unfold in the STEP and Unity Trusts, and to learn more about how the academy movement in the U.K. might provide a path toward widespread and thoughtful use of proven programs, benefiting very large numbers of students. And I’d love to see more U.S. charter networks and traditional school districts use cascading replication to scale up proven, whole-school approaches likely to improve outcomes in disadvantaged schools.

Photo credit: Kindermel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.