'I have heard you' – Zahawi commits £65m more to school-led tutoring as MPs slam NTP failures

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Clear message: A total of 532,000 tuition courses have been started on the schools-led NTP route compared to 188,000 on the tuition partner and academic mentor routes (Image: Adobe Stock)

The education secretary has finally acted to address the elephant in the room of the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) – admitting that most schools want to run their own recovery tutoring provision.

It comes as a damning report by MPs on the Education Select Committee said that the NTP “appears to be failing the most disadvantaged”. MPs on the committee have now called on the Department for Education (DfE) to “prove the NTP’s efficacy” or terminate the multi-million-pound contract with provider Randstad.

The NTP has been under fire for some time for its poor performance in delivering “catch-up” tutoring to disadvantaged children in the wake of the pandemic.

The NTP’s approach of making schools use “tuition partners” – a list of 57 “approved” and subsidised third party providers, many of which are profit-making companies – has not been popular. Even less popular has been its “academic mentors” route.

This is despite plenty of evidence that school leaders want to use one-to-one and small group tuition as part of recovery work.

Even the DfE’s own research found that schools wanted more control over tutoring provision. Published in January, it found that school leaders believed “more tailored approaches, fine-tuned by the teachers to meet specific learning needs, were more effective than the NTP” (Achtaridou et al, 2022).

Perhaps proving the point, a belated third school-led strand of the NTP, which was created in November, and which gives money directly to schools to organise their own provision, has proved much more popular.

So much so that education secretary Nadhim Zahawi revealed last week the “transfer of up to £65m” into the school-led tutoring strand from the other two routes.

Under school-led tutoring, all eligible state-funded schools are given a ring-fenced grant to fund locally sourced tutoring provision for disadvantaged pupils. This can include using existing staff or external tutoring.

The DfE confirmed that to the end of February, 532,000 tuition courses have been started on the schools-led route so far this academic year. This compares to 114,000 on the tuition partner courses and just 74,000 on the academic mentors route.

This total of 720,000 comes against a target of two million 15-hour courses to be delivered this academic year.

Randstad has been delivering the first two pillars of the NTP since September 2021, having taken over from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) which had delivered the programme since its inception in November 2020. In a statement, Randstad said the NTP was “on course to deliver our target of two million courses during this academic year”.

However, the MPs’ report – Is the catch-up programme fit for purpose? (2022) – does not hold back in its criticism.

The report states: “Neither Randstad (nor) the DfE have been able to tell us if targets for delivering tuition to disadvantaged children are being met. What we do know is that as of December 12, 2021, just 52,000 courses had been started by pupils through the tuition partners pillar – 10% of Randstad’s target for this year.

“Witnesses who gave evidence also told us that the programme was a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’, and that Randstad’s online tuition hub was ‘dysfunctional’.”

The MPs were also told that there was a “lack of communication” with schools. The report also references the recent revelations that the requirement on tuition partners to ensure at least 65% of tutoring was for Pupil Premium pupils has been removed.

A big bugbear for MPs was the lack of transparency. The report states: “During our evidence session, we asked Randstad about the number of children accessing the NTP who had SEND or who were receiving Pupil Premium, for the number of tutoring providers in the North compared with the South, and for a regional breakdown of those accessing the NTP.

“Randstad undertook to provide this information to the committee. They also committed to providing us with regular updates of the number of pupils accessing the NTP. To date, we have not received any further statistics or data on the performance of the NTP. Randstad or the DfE should immediately provide this data or make it publicly available.”

The MPs are concerned that the NTP is exacerbating the regional disparities in “learning loss” that we have seen during the pandemic.

The report warns that pupils spent just 2.5 hours learning every day during the national lockdowns while mental health problems for children rose by 60%. The impact has been felt much more in some Northern regions than in the South.

The report adds: “By March 2021 the NTP had reached 100% of its target numbers of schools in the South West of England and 96.1% in the South East, but just 58.8% in the North East, 58.9% in Yorkshire and the Humber and 59.3% in the North West. We do not yet know whether this regional inequality has improved or declined further during the 2021/22 academic year.”

The report concludes: “The NTP itself – the government’s flagship catch-up programme – appears to be failing the most disadvantaged. It is not clear that the NTP will deliver for the pupils that need it most.”

In its recommendations, the report calls for “full transparency about the operation of the NTP, including information on how many pupils are benefitting from the programme, and what the characteristics of those pupils are”.

The report says the DfE must measure and publish statistics on the improvements in children’s attainment achieved by the NTP. It also wants to see half-termly updates on the number of starts under the NTP, including regionality and disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND.

The MPs add: “If the NTP fails to meet its targets by spring, the DfE should terminate its contract with Randstad.

Nadhim Zahawi: 'I have heard you'

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) last week, Mr Zahawi admitted: “I know that many of you have had challenges with the programme. I have listened and I have heard you, and we are making improvements as I speak to you today.

“This includes the immediate transfer of up to £65m into school-led tutoring from the other two routes. It’s become clear to me that by far the most popular route is the one run by you – the school.”

The DfE has also relaxed the requirements for the “academic mentors” strand of the NTP, meaning mentors now only need a minimum of A level requirements at A* to C when before they needed to hold a degree. The rate of pay for graduate mentors has also been increased.

The Education Select Committee report says that the government’s catch-up programme to date has been fragmented and a complex bureaucratic system for applications”. It bemoans the “spaghetti junction of funding” which it says has “hampered some schools’ ability to access some elements of the government’s support.

It urges ministers to simplify funding and merge it into one pot for schools to access and spend where the recovery need is greatest. Schools should then be held accountable for how they spend their catch-up funding,” the MPs conclude.

Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, said:“The education catch-up programme and additional £5bn of funding provision was of course, hugely welcome. However, there is a real question as to whether it is actually working.

“Our committee heard that it is not reaching the most disadvantaged children, there are significant regional disparities and there is a real risk of failure through Randstad as the delivery partner. The Government must ensure Randstad shapes up, or boot them out.

The catch-up programme must be shown to be reaching disadvantaged pupils and this data must be published. Schools must also be given the autonomy to spend catch-up funding on what they know will be of most benefit to their pupils.”

Appetite for tutoring is high

Commenting on the NTP, Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Celebration at the success of the school-led route is somewhat tinged with disappointment at the continued issues being faced by the core tutoring offer. School leaders tell us that they find accessing tuition partners and academic mentors through the NTP to be confusing and difficult.

"Yet the appetite among schools for tutoring is high. The belief in the ambition to make tutoring available to all, irrespective of family wealth, is strong. It is therefore to be welcomed that the education secretary has taken steps to divert funding to the school-led route and commits to take further action to simplify processes and improve quality."

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary at the National Education Union, added: “The catch-up funding should have been allocated directly to schools and colleges not via Randstad. It’s common sense that tutoring programmes should be led by schools and so it is good to see MPs record that teachers and school staff know their pupils and what interventions are likely to bring the most benefit. The DfE needs to heed this and allocate the funding to school budgets in a way that is linked to numbers of children eligible for free school meals.”

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