“I don’t want to be here, Miss. I hate English.”
My 16-year-old pupil twirls a half-chewed biro round in his fingers, and sighs heavily as he leans back in his chair. It’s 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon in September, and he has given up before we have begun. I push a working pen and a packet of chocolate digestives in his direction and smile: “Hate’s a rubbish word. Pick a better one – what about ‘despise’, or ‘loathe’?”. He looks at me askance, wondering why on earth I haven’t chastised him for shunning my subject before I’ve even introduced myself. “You don’t have to like English,” I say, “but you can certainly learn to be better at expressing your feelings about it”. The corner of his mouth curls into a flicker of a smile. I think of the ten Tuesday afternoons that lie ahead, of all that I hope to help him achieve before Christmas, and wonder wistfully whether at the end of it all he will indeed feel any differently about the subject. He stops twirling his pen. He knows I’m not going anywhere and, slowly reaching for a biscuit, he shuffles his chair in towards the table.
I am one of 800 volunteer tutors across seven cities who volunteer for Action Tutoring –its mission is to address the attainment gap between those who can afford the private tutors and resources and can access support at home, and those who can’t. It works with schools who have a higher than average proportion of pupils on Free School Meals to eliminate, as far as possible, the disparity that currently means only 33% of the million or so pupils eligible for Pupil Premium achieve five GCSEs at Grade 4 or higher (previously a C-grade). At its heart is a desire not only to encourage each child to fulfil their academic potential, but to help them grow in confidence too.
Each week I head to a secondary school in London where I spend just over an hour working with a small group of Year 11 pupils, teasing ideas out of them, helping them to form arguments, and showing them how to structure their writing. Armed with a handful of highlighters and a smile, I teach them how to approach all manner of 19th, 20th and 21st-century texts, quietly preparing them for their upcoming exams, but conscious never to contribute to the anxiety the ever-changing assessment system has already instilled in them.
It is often a challenge to motivate a group of tired or demotivated 16-year-olds, but one I relish for the trust and relationships I am able to build with them, and I come away each week feeling rewarded by even the smallest glimmers of enjoyment and progress.
The pupils I tutor are all eligible for Free School Meals; for some, English is a second or third language; some care for a parent or younger siblings at home; some have behavioural difficulties that make it hard for them to focus in class; others simply lack the self-belief they need to progress. Classroom teachers are stretched beyond their means, and the unfathomable pressure to meet targets and cope with the bombardment of new syllabi each year is more often than not borne on pupils’ shoulders too. Whilst already navigating a path through adolescence, and with responsibilities and stresses at home, engaging with lessons can seem as pointless as it is exhausting.
This is where Action Tutoring, and volunteer tutors like me are determined to make a difference. In the most recent academic year, Action Tutoring more than doubled this pass-rate statistic, helping 73% of the pupils attending its English tutoring sessions to achieve a GCSE at Grade 4 or above. Attending pupils are making half a GCSE grade’s progress in only 10 weeks, where they are typically expected by schools to have made this at best in an academic year. As someone whose parents could never afford private tutoring, and who worked hard through school to exceed others’ expectations, it is a privilege and a joy to be a part of this work.
Through Action Tutoring I have volunteered in co-educational, single-sex, and Church of England schools in London, and the myriad cultural, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds from which the pupils come is enormously enriching, both in the context of the classroom and beyond. Besides the different creative approaches and ideas each pupil brings to the table, they come with a unique perspective that deepens and enlivens our collective learning.
In turn, I hope to offer them consistency, affirmation, and a sense of humour to see them through the session after a long day at school. I want to show them someone who has entered the sphere of higher education whilst remaining grounded and loyal to all those who helped make that possible: as others once did for me I show them books from my library, discuss their post-16 options, encourage them to attend further education open evenings and research their true interests. I read the books they’re studying at school so I can better assist them in tackling the exams, whilst showing them I take their education as seriously as my own and that I am prepared to learn alongside them.
I am determined for them to be exposed to an attitude to learning that knows no elitism, no snobbery, no bounds.
Often, on the long tube journeys home, I find myself reflecting on all that my pupils have taught me that week, and I return with a renewed enthusiasm for my own learning, accumulation of knowledge, and sense of achievement. Not only has my work with Action Tutoring broadened my understanding of the infinite number of different teaching and learning styles, it has reshaped and enriched my understanding of the fabric of this vast city. It has made me more organised with my time, forced me to perfect my communication of complex ideas with the utmost clarity, and has made me a more focused and appreciative student myself. Second to none, however, my work with the charity has proven to me more strongly than ever the importance of democratising education, and of dismantling the financial and elitist barriers to learning all the way to degree-level. It is vital to erode at a grass-roots level the damaging narratives that many disadvantaged young people absorb – all too often I witness the disheartened shrug of ‘education isn’t for me’, the embarrassed mumble of ‘no university would ever take someone like me’, and the ever-anxious ‘I just can’t, I don’t even know how…’. It is not only untrue, it is deeply harmful to the long-term ambitions of these bright and creative young minds. It saddens me, and spurs me to change little by little the mind-sets of ‘can’t’ and ‘wouldn’t’ to ‘can’ and ‘will’. An hour a week of small-group support, gentle encouragement and affirmation is just the first step.
Now in my third year of university and finishing my third programme of volunteering with Action Tutoring, I couldn’t imagine not being a part of its work. It has provided me with the impetus and the skills to turn my once-a-week commitment into a career path. The experiences I have been afforded by Action Tutoring have provided me with valuable insights into various London schools and allowed me to engage with a host of fantastic staff and pupils. It has exposed me to many different facets of schooling and education policy, and given me greater confidence in my own leadership and communication skills, as well as my ability to motivate and organise others. Volunteering with Action Tutoring has inspired me to spend the next few years working in the charity sector, campaigning for improved education policy, working closely with schools to create resources designed to support their pupils and building relationships between higher education institutions and schools to make sure no child thinks the door to degree-level learning is closed to them. As a society, we have a lot to learn with regard to the valuing of young people – the road is long, but underestimation benefits no one, and we must begin with affirmation and gratitude.
It’s quarter to four on a cold December afternoon, and the sky is already darkening into a wintry purple. Two of my pupils are studiously preparing arguments for a mini debate we are about to orchestrate on the contentious topic of school uniform. I can’t help but feel disappointed by the empty chair where my third pupil should be; he has made such incredible progress over the last nine weeks, and I had rather thought he was beginning to enjoy our sessions. Perhaps, I muse a little sadly, I was being too optimistic in thinking he might have found himself liking the subject he once told me he hated. But all of a sudden the classroom door flings open and he bursts in, out of breath: “Miss! I’m so sorry,” he pants, “I got all the way home and then remembered your lesson!”. He shrugs off his bag, throws his coat over the back of the chair and is fumbling around in his blazer for a pen: “I ran back as fast as I could – what have I missed?”. I cannot help but beam. “Nothing you can’t catch up on in the next few minutes”, I say, handing him his workbook. A lump forms in my throat as I imagine him almost home, realising his mistake, and turning around to run back to school in the half-light. He values the hour we spend after school, making English more exciting, more accessible, less daunting, and in the course of the last few weeks his attitude to a subject he once found so disengaging has transformed into one in which he can take pride and find fulfilment. He is already scribbling down ideas for the debate and bantering with his peers over who will ‘triumph’. All three are laughing, all three have chosen to be here, and after a moment I add, “Thank you. For coming back. I really, really appreciate that.”
Anna volunteers with Action Tutoring in London and is a student at King’s College London. In January 2018 she was awarded the Experience London Award from the university, for an essay she wrote about her experience with our charity (from which the above extract was taken).