News & Insights 5 March 2019

“The attainment gap does not have to be inevitable.” Action Tutoring CEO reflects on the charity’s achievements and future impact

My awareness of the difference targeted, extra support could make for pupils started at an early age. I had some tutoring at the end of primary school and I can still remember and picture my tutor, Mrs Shields, not least because as much as helping me grasp subject knowledge I was struggling with, she hugely improved my confidence and self-belief. Even at a young age I think I felt an awareness that those opportunities that were given to me shouldn’t just be available to those whose parents can afford them.  

At the heart of Action Tutoring lies a desire to see every child reach their potential, regardless of their background. When Action Tutoring started, we looked heavily at the evidence base for targeted, well-structured tutoring programmes and have adapted our programme to include the elements that we know will help to contribute to the best possible impact from the tutoring. Last year, we were able to work with nearly 2,500 pupils in 80 schools across seven cities.

In the UK there is sadly a large gap in attainment between poorer and wealthier pupils, beginning in primary school and only widening at the secondary level, to reach a 27 percentage point difference in attainment in English and maths at GCSE. This isn’t because of a lack of ability and many other countries manage to achieve a much smaller attainment gap.

Tutoring can be an effective way to level the playing field, especially considering that 25% of pupils nationally and over 40% in London are now having private tutoring at some point. It’s a booming industry giving many a big advantage, but for the most part serving young people that are already doing well and not reaching those falling behind if their parents are unable to afford the support.

The evidence base for tutoring as an intervention to support pupils is strong, but last night we were excitingly able to celebrate that Action Tutoring’s own programme is working, at an event in Parliament to launch our 2017-18 Impact Report. The event was hosted by Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, who visited one of our programmes last year, and with guest speaker the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards.

Welcoming over 100 guests representing our funders, partner schools, volunteer tutors, fellow charities and corporates, to the evening, Helen Hayes said, “the work [of Action Tutoring] plays a significant role in helping pupils to remain engaged in education for longer”, ultimately improving the life outcomes of the young people involved and bringing benefits to the wider economy and society.

Nick Gibb commenting on our work said, “this Impact Report shows that it is possible to close the attainment gap and Action Tutoring has had huge success raising attainment. The pupils are proof that regardless of your circumstances it is possible to get crucial English and maths qualifications. Action Tutoring offers a practical, structured solution. Action Tutoring’s vision is one that I fully endorse.”

In addition to hearing from Helen and Nick, two pupils from the programme bravely shared the difference Action Tutoring has made to them in their studies, with Olivia, who is now studying for her A Levels and who plans to go to university saying, “Tutoring sessions create a comfortable environment that can help to boost your confidence. The tutors paid attention to what we were doing and would check if we understood everything. Tutoring offered me guidance and personal attention that I wouldn’t find in a school setting.  I believe that Action Tutoring had the biggest impact on my life.”

Our impact report shows that on our primary programme last year, just 10% of our pupils, 90% of whom were eligible for Pupil Premium funding, were working at national standard when they started our programme, but after just two terms of tutoring over 70% achieved this benchmark, setting them on a strong trajectory to achieve at secondary school and beyond.

At secondary level, after just two terms of tutoring our pupils, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are considered at risk of not reaching national standard, were able to match the national pass rate for all pupils in English and maths, regardless of background. Achieving this crucial benchmark will significantly improve their chances of progressing into further education, employment or training, opening up paths to them that would otherwise be closed.

Our pupils face considerable challenges in their lives and I am constantly impressed at their resilience and willingness to attend tutoring sessions outside of school hours. Last week I visited one of our partner primary schools in South London. The head pointed to a small group of four pupils all on the Action Tutoring programme. He explained that of the four, one comes from a single parent family with that parent dying of cancer, another is being bought up by an elderly carer instead of her parents, one is a looked after child and the fourth lives with her mother who is very committed to her daughter’s education but is sadly herself completely illiterate. When we talk about disadvantage, these are the real challenges these pupils face. Helping them make progress against the circumstances they face isn’t easy or straight forward, but it is possible, and these pupils deserve all the help we can give them.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are reports that currently say in the UK it could take 70 years or more to close the attainment gap, but I don’t believe it has to be that way and our results point to that. We recently carried out a freedom of information request that looked at how many disadvantaged pupils pass either their maths or English GCSE, but not both. Analysis from this with our partner Impetus-PEF further showed that if the 19,000 disadvantaged pupils passing in one subject could be supported to achieve in both, then the attainment gap would in fact be halved. To put it in perspective, 19,000 is fewer than six pupils per school, or to put it another way, fewer than the total number of secondary school pupils in Manchester alone. The attainment gap does not have to be inevitable.

Action Tutoring has ambitious plans to continue to grow, especially outside of London where the attainment gap is even larger. Autumn 2017 saw us launch in our seventh city, Newcastle, and this autumn we are aiming to launch in our eighth, Nottingham.  Alongside this, we’ll continue to expand our growing primary programme and deepen our reach in current areas of operation. Last night was a fantastic opportunity to celebrate all that’s been achieved so far, right in the heart of government, and we look forward continuing to ensure our programme is as high quality and impactful as possible, to benefit even more young lives.