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For many years there has been an implicit consensus across the learning and skills sector that personal tutoring contributes to improving retention and achievement. A great deal of research has been undertaken to explore this correlation concluding that tutoring lies at the heart of every learner’s experience and is central to their achievement and progression. So why is it that many still feel that the role of the personal tutor is under resourced and under-valued?

Some share the view that tutorial provision is as an expensive luxury. Where this is the case it is often first in line when it comes to identifying financial savings, without asking the question ‘at what cost?’ Arguably then, reducing the level of tutoring is a false economy considering the role it plays in identifying learners at risk, implementing early interventions and supporting learners to keep on track. This is particularly significant when taking into account that lost learners equates to lost income. That aside, we should also be mindful that when we recruit learners we are making a commitment to serve them well and good tutoring is part of that service.

A second factor worthy of consideration is the complexity of the role and its contribution to retention, achievement and progression. Tutoring is at the heart of supporting and enabling learners to achieve. Tutors are responsible for monitoring progress; identifying barriers to learning; enabling learners to become motivated, autonomous self-starters and to develop essential wider skills so that they are well equipped to succeed in life and work. The difficulty is not in appreciating that personal tutors undertake these tasks but in evidencing the impact of this complex role. It has been said by some that where learners succeed it is down to good teaching, where learners fail it is down to poor tutoring. It is clear that further work is still needed to explore and develop methods to assess the impact of tutoring, not simply to validate the contribution that it makes but also to provide a tool for self evaluation and quality improvement.

The third and perhaps most significant factor is the assumption that ‘anyone can do it’. Tutoring deals with the whole person, the individual, the human being and is a learning relationship requiring specific skills and attributes. A negative tutoring relationship, i.e. one that does not engage fully with the learner does not support the fulfilment of an individual’s potential. Furthermore many case studies have found that poor tutoring can have a negative impact on learners and can be detrimental to their mental wellbeing.  This has significant implications for recruiting and training personal tutors to ensure that the right people are in place to encourage, support and challenge learners effectively. Sadly, there are still cases where organisations allocate tutoring on the basis of timetables and availability rather than an ability to undertake the role effectively.

Historically, there has been a lack of consensus as to what constitutes good tutoring and little guidance has been available to support the effective recruitment and development of appropriately skilled personal tutors. This has led to a disparate quality of provision and learner experience across the sector and in many cases across individual organisations.  The Further Education Tutorial Network (FETN) has engaged with the sector to address these issues through research, training and resource development and has recently worked in collaboration the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) to develop National Occupational Standards for Personal Tutoring.

The National Occupational Standards identify the requisite skills, knowledge and understanding for those undertaking a tutoring role. They are applicable to Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges, Higher Education and Work Based Learning, all of which took part in the national consultation. The new standards, approved across the four nations of the UK, bring greater clarity to the tutoring role and bring it in line with other professional occupations such as mentoring, coaching and counselling in so much as these professional communities work to given standards and competences and are acknowledged as requiring specific skills and expertise.

The standards can be used as a benchmark for effective tutoring practice and as a tool to review policy and procedures for recruiting, training and supporting personal tutors in order to improve the quality of provision and enhance learners’ experience and outcomes. The National Occupational Standards are available on the Free Resources page of the FETN website.

Dr Sally Wootton is founding director of the Further Education Tutorial Network, a not for profit organisation whose mission is to improve learner retention, achievement and success through outstanding tutorial, enrichment and wider skills development

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