Jonah Bury is a Senior Researcher in the Children and Families Team at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)

Earlier this month, news broke that the Government appointed its own ‘education recovery tsar’.

Sir Kevan Collins, previously Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), will oversee a programme of catch-up learning targeted at young people, including the National Tutoring Programme.

The challenge is significant: young learners have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and partial school closures, with the most disadvantaged learners having lost up to seven months’ progress.

Upon his appointment, Sir Kevan highlighted the increasing role that technology, including online learning, will play in education.

Last year the Online Tuition Pilot, led by EEF and partner organisations, aimed to support disadvantaged pupils at primary and secondary schools across England through fully subsidised online tuition.

The pilot saw established tutoring providers deliver online lessons to over 1400 learners throughout the summer of 2020.

One of the questions our research team at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) explored in our evaluation of the pilot was whether online tuition can improve engagement with education for disadvantaged learners.

Increase in enjoyment, confidence and understanding

The message is positive. Learners, tutors and school leads all believed that online tutoring led to an increased enjoyment of learning, more confidence and better subject knowledge. For instance, around three out of four learners who completed our online feedback survey reported that they now enjoyed learning more than they did before they had online tuition.

Moreover, nine out of ten learners who completed our online feedback survey felt more confident doing their schoolwork now compared to before they started online tuition. And when we spoke to learners in focus groups, they explained that the online sessions had given them a better understanding of subject knowledge and key concepts.

Why does it matter?

Enjoyment of learning and confidence in one’s own ability have several important by-products. For example, we found that learners who enjoyed the sessions were less likely to report missing sessions and more likely to report benefits for their learning.

Crucially, confidence and enjoyment of learning go together. School leads in our focus groups observed that learners had developed a more positive attitude to learning through an increase in confidence, something which is backed up by other studies.

At one secondary school, children who took part in maths tutoring completed more of the online maths work set by their teacher than they had done before the pilot started. Their teacher felt this was due to an increased confidence in their abilities resulting from the online tuition.

Key ingredients

We all know that there’s no one magic bullet that can make all learners enjoy learning, feel confident and improve their success in a subject. But we found there are some key ingredients, which, when combined, make this more likely. These included the importance of a routine, one-on-one attention, and positive relationships between tutors and learners:

  • The importance of a routine: Tutors and learners felt that ensuring a habit of learning despite partial school closures was key to building learners’ confidence. This was especially the case for learners for whom the weekly session was the only regular form of education that they engaged with during partial school closures.
  • One-on-one attention: Tutors and learners saw huge benefits in the one-on-one attention and tailored learning that the tutoring provided. Learners felt that having their tutor’s full attention allowed them to better engage with the content compared to a busy classroom environment. As one secondary learner put it: “The teacher is scrambled with everyone in the class…when it's one-to-one they can really focus on what you're struggling with.”
  • Positive relationships: Positive relationships between tutors and learners contributed to higher attendance and engagement. They also helped learners’ wellbeing. For example, learners who felt isolated during the school closures valued the chance to talk to someone outside their household.

Is online tuition the future?

Despite the many positives of online tuition, we found that most learners prefer face-to-face tuition if given the choice. However, the increase in enjoyment, confidence and understanding all point to the potential of online tuition as a real alternative at a time of growing uncertainty and partial school closures. To make it a success and a more sustainable feature, though, we cannot forget the main ingredient without which online tuition cannot be delivered: sufficient laptops and tablets for all learners.

Jonah Bury, Senior Researcher in the Children and Families Team at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)

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