When it comes to tutoring, undoubtedly the main barrier for schools is cost. By using trained and experienced volunteer tutors the Tutorfair Foundation can bypass that issue, but the practical questions around organising support remain. Even when providing completely free tutoring to a school, there is one key issue that divides opinion, where school policies diverge the most and many different approaches are used. That is when should the additional support take place? The Foundation’s Director, Joss, gave us his thoughts on the problem of timetabling for tutoring in schools.
Increasingly, the mainstream secondary schools I speak to are consciously moving away from requesting in-class support. This is not to say that they believe in-class support is not impactful or not welcomed by teachers; only that they’re aware that the impact of this intervention can be harder to show. Consequently, the well-publicised research into high-quality small-group tuition (as well as its relative cost efficiency) makes this the more common approach – focused, high-impact and simple to monitor.
So, let’s imagine we are planning to support a group of three Year 11 students with their maths. Their predicted grades are all 5, but they’ve been struggling with the fundamentals for a while and they’re at risk of falling behind where they need to be. We want to group them together and have them work with a tutor for an hour each week to work on individual difficulties, improve confidence and secure three good passes.
Generally speaking, we have three main ways to deliver this. Firstly, we could arrange for students to have their maths tuition for an hour outside of teaching time. Sometimes schools will ask students to come in on Saturday mornings for this purpose, but more likely we’re looking at an hour after school or during lunch break.
Secondly, we can take students out of their lessons in other subjects. Most often this means sacrificing an hour of P.E. or PSHE, but (depending on the student and the time of year) has sometimes included extractions from the non-core subject in which the student in question is least likely to achieve a passing grade.
Thirdly, we can arrange for the sessions to take place during their timetabled maths lessons - for one hour per week they will go to a tutor instead of to their usual class. All three of these options offer obvious benefits, but each also has its pitfalls. So how can schools navigate their policies and make the right choice?
Maths tutoring in non-teaching hours
More than ever before I am speaking with schools who operate a strict policy of never removing students from their lessons for interventions – particularly in Year 11. Historically, it has been common practice for schools to operate a programme of extractions using their teaching assistants as an “informal” teaching resource for their most needy students. Although, undoubtedly, this was driven by efforts to provide additional support to the students who need it, evidence now suggests this is not best practice and is not the best use of teaching assistants’ time.
Perhaps partly as a reaction to this, I’m now more likely to speak with school leaders who are formally focused on keeping all students in their lessons and investing in interventions that directly improve or augment classroom teaching, rather than relying on a programme of extractions to address low-attainment.
So, if students aren’t coming out of lessons, our Year 11s must have their maths tutoring after school or during lunch. The obvious upside of this is that it won’t disrupt learning in any other subjects – we’re only adding to learning time and never replacing it. But, of course, more learning does not mean better learning – evidence consistently shows that the quality of a provision (and our students’ engagement with it) has a much greater effect on outcomes than its quantity.
The clear danger is that students asked to stay behind after school or miss lunch for additional maths support can feel singled-out and even punished as a result. This, in turn, limits the number of students for which the intervention will be effective. Only students that are highly motivated will settle to the provision long-term. Students that are anxious or disengaged with the subject will find it very hard to commit to and enjoy after-school support over a number of weeks, leading to issues with attendance and behaviour in the sessions.
This also poses challenges for the tutor, who has to deliver their lesson appropriately to the situation – bearing in mind that the students may be predisposed to resent attending the sessions and may arrive either tired from a full day of lessons or needing to blow off some steam at lunch. A further problem is that (at least when considering our volunteer/tutor community) many successful tutors who would like to support a local school will be in high demand after 3pm and are likely to have their own clients booked for in-home lessons. As a result, we find that opportunities for after-school support are harder to recruit for than opportunities that take place during the day.
Maths tutoring replacing lessons in other subjects
Often, schools will operate a policy that allows for extractions from some subjects but not others. The usual suspects will suffer first (double P.E. here, a Careers lesson there) but, as exams approach, the number of lessons that can find themselves on the chopping block increases. This has always presented a problem in school; an understandable tension between departments as attendance begins to drop in one subject to insure against failures in another. All teachers are under pressure to demonstrate progress in their own subjects so, inevitably, grievances can occur when this method is used.
As with tutoring after school, students can feel similarly singled-out and punished by being removed from other subjects – particularly when they enjoy those subjects more than they enjoy maths. More broadly, the notion that P.E., PSHE, history or computing should function as a reward for students who are succeeding in maths rather than important aspects of a students’ education in their own right is problematic – and not a notion that, in my experience, school leaders would stand by. But the time for interventions must come from somewhere and these decisions can be difficult.
Removing students from lessons in other subjects enjoys the same benefit as tutoring during non-teaching hours (it means more maths support for struggling students) but faces many of the same drawbacks and more. Aside from the increased practical difficulty in timetabling sessions for a group of students that might be expected in a number of different subjects, it can put students off, stoke internal tensions and, most importantly, requires additional work to ensure that progress in tutoring sessions is meaningfully connected to the students’ maths lessons.
Maths tutoring replacing maths lessons
The final option to explore is removing students for tutoring during their maths lessons. This is an option that is more likely to be prohibited by school policy for students in later years – more popular as an intervention for KS3 students than those in KS4.
The question posed by this method is that of where students should be during their maths lessons. Surely, if the maths provision at a school is adequate, the best place for students during their maths lessons is in their maths lessons! It’s hard to commit to the notion that they should be somewhere (anywhere) else during this time, but it’s obvious that in some cases students will benefit from more individualised help with the topics at hand.
This approach carries the highest risk and the highest reward. The risk is that if an intervention is unsuccessful (whether because it fails to settle over a number of weeks or simply because the standard of tuition isn’t high enough) then not only have our three Year 11 students not been helped by the sessions, they’ve also missed crucial maths lessons that they would otherwise have attended.
The reward stems from the fact that tutoring is so much more likely to be impactful if it is directly and meaningfully connected to teaching in the classroom. By taking students from their maths lesson to a small-group setting, tutors can start from the same themes, resources and approaches used in the lesson – offering individualised support with minimal divergence from the content of the lesson they’ve been taken from. This means their next maths lesson will follow on intuitively from the session and we’ll see impact from the tutoring more effectively translated back into the classroom.
Ideally, this approach encourages a closer working relationship between the tutor and the maths department – where, for example, in after-school sessions there is no guarantee the tutor would even have met their students’ teacher, let alone regularly communicate and share resources. This approach will see the highest attendance and engagement from sessions and encourages students to see the support as augmenting their learning – not singling them out or punishing them for struggling.
Choosing a route
Whilst tutoring during scheduled lessons has the highest potential to be impactful, effective support that is directly connected to classroom teaching, we know that it has the highest risk and can challenge policies that rightly value classroom teaching as the indomitable provision. Once tutoring is underway and a relationship is established between tutor and tutee, however, it’s difficult to deny that more individualised support once a week would be a fantastic resource for any struggling student.
Perhaps, where there is room to make a choice as to which route to take, it would be best to begin a programme of tutoring during non-teaching hours or via extractions from other subjects. After 3 or 4 weeks, once a relationship is established and the provision is judged to have settled effectively, the sessions could move to take place during timetabled maths lessons. This would capitalise on the likely increased impact of connecting to lessons, whilst mitigating the risk of an unsuccessful intervention. The burden on other subject teachers would be lessened, and students wouldn’t have to commit time after school or during lunch for the entirety of the provision.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to discuss having our volunteer tutors support students at your school, feel free to get in touch us me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be delighted to hear from you.