University-led tutoring should be used nationwide to help narrow widening school attainment gaps, experts urge


Lessons should reflect the full cultural diversity of pupils, argue the authors, including working-class achievements in society

University-led tutoring for children should be used nationwide to help narrow widening school attainment gaps, experts from the University of Exeter and UPP Foundation have said.

Results from a pilot programme shows pairing university students and pupils can be a “win-win-win model” – boosting attainment amongst less advantaged children, giving students invaluable life experience and skills and helping to revitalise local communities.

Children who took part in the pilot showed a 100 per cent improvement in their basic writing skills.

A new guide has been published to encourage other universities to establish university-led tutoring to help raise attainment amongst less advantaged school pupils.

The Year 8 pupils who received tutoring had a 100 per cent increase in test scores when taking a pre- and post-tutoring assessment.

Professor Lee Elliot Major and Dr Anne-Marie Sim, from the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, ran the pilot with teachers at St James School in Exeter, which is part of the local Ted Wragg Trust.

Professor Elliot Major said: “Our ultimate hope is to help create a sustainable nationwide tutoring effort benefitting pupils across the country. We believe that a university-led programme is a real opportunity to build a win-win-win model for both learners and student tutors if done in the right way. Universities are well-placed to ensure that the student tutor experience is as beneficial as possible and this could improve the school achievement of hundreds of thousands of poorer pupils across the country.

“As reputable, well-funded and established institutions within their local regions, universities are well placed to deliver high quality, sustainable tutoring at scale and make a real difference to many young lives.”

As a result of the success of the initial pilot the University of Exeter and UPP Foundation have published a report to encourage other universities to take up the mantel of university-led tutoring. The guide outlines practical lessons around quality and scale. that will be helpful to other universities when setting up a sustainable tutoring programme.

Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation – the charity which is helping to fund the pilot and co-publishing the Guide said: “Tutoring delivered through universities and colleges has the potential to reach pupils in the farthest reaches of the country. This would be a social mobility game-changer and a major contribution to levelling-up an unequal education system for pupils and students alike. It could also encourage more undergraduates into teaching. But it would also benefit universities, who need to do more to demonstrate their value to all in society.”

Professor Elliot Major and Dr Sim are currently trialling other models of delivery, for example paying students for tutoring and working with partners across different universities using the same training course, and with the UPP Foundation’s funding are extending the pilot this year.  

Dr Sim said: “The evidence for tutoring is strong; the main challenge is implementation. Ensuring quality is paramount.

“Small group tutoring by undergraduate students is an evidence-informed intervention shown to increase pupils’ progress. This is one of the few education approaches which particularly benefits disadvantaged pupils.

“Unlike short-term government programmes, universities can plan to embed tutoring into the education system for the long term. They are well placed to build strong, lasting relationships with schools and multi-academy trusts ensuring a tutoring service can be self-improving and responsive to local needs.”

Lindsay Skinner, head teacher at St James School in Exeter, created the tutoring course and undergraduate training and oversaw delivery of the tutoring at St James. She said: “Seeing the tutoring take place has been a joy. The undergraduates have been really invested in doing a good job and the results have been brilliant. But what’s been utterly heart-warming is some of the things that aren’t captured in these figures: the rapport that the undergraduates and students have built, and the ways in which they’ve inspired each other.

“I’ve seen some of our students believe that they can go to university or into a professional job. For the undergraduates, it’s helped them understand whether or not teaching is for them; one signed up for teacher training whilst doing the placement because it confirmed for her that this is what she wants to do. That’s a great result at a time when increasing teacher recruitment is vital.” 

A review of the evidence available about tutoring carried out as part of the pilot estimates it can help children in Year 6 make an extra three months’ progress, and Year 9 to 11 pupils one month.

A survey carried out by Professor Elliot Major and Dr Sim indicates that perhaps only around a third of universities currently run a tutoring or mentoring programme for school or college learners – around 50 out of around 150 universities.

The pilot took pace in the autumn of 2022 with 6 undergraduate students on the Learning for Teaching course tutoring 18 Year 8 students.

Lindsay Skinner, head teacher at St James School in Exeter, wrote the nine-week tutoring course, produced the undergraduate tutor training course (a set of 5 online lectures and supporting slides), selected and grouped the pupils and oversaw weekly tutoring sessions, which took place in the atrium after school.

Students had one week in which to complete the online training – a 5-hour series of online lectures created by Lindsay. They then attended weekly sessions at St James School in Exeter, spending an hour-and-a-half observing lessons before tutoring the same three pupils each week, after school for one hour.   

Pupils were selected because they had been identified by their English teachers as not consistently writing in accurate sentences. The average score for the pre-assessment was 10.9 out of 30. The average score for the post-assessment was 21 out of 30. 

Outcomes from the post-tutoring survey indicate that undergraduate students enjoyed the tutoring, found the workload manageable and would recommend it to others.