Closing National Tutoring Programme will cut off vital support for poorer pupils

Education and social mobility experts at the Sutton Trust have warned politicians that inequalities in education are a ticking time bomb for social mobility and social cohesion, unless there is a renewed focus on tackling the attainment gap.

The difference in education outcomes between low-income students and their better-off peers – known as the attainment gap – has widened considerably since the pandemic, wiping out a decade of progress.

The gap decreased slightly during the early 2010s, before progress stalled prior to the pandemic. However, the disruption to learning caused by COVID-19 saw the gap widen drastically again to levels not seen since 2011.

The Trust warns these inequalities will worsen without decisive action to navigate the perfect storm of the ongoing cost of living crisis, high rates of persistent absence and the related surge in mental health issues among pupils.

The attainment gap is caused by a wide variety of factors in the home and in schools. One important factor is the greater access to private tutoring enjoyed by middle-class pupils. New Sutton Trust polling has found that 39% of secondary pupils from better-off homes had received private tuition at some point in their schooling, compared to 22% of pupils from worse off homes.

A major concern is that the National Tutoring Programme – a key government initiative to help pupils catch up on the lost learning of the pandemic and its aftermath – is due to come to an end this summer. This scheme has expanded access to tutoring for low-income pupils, with the polling showing that more than a quarter (27%) of worst-off students received tutoring from their school last year.

One-to-one and small group tuition are proven and highly cost-effective strategies for raising attainment. Research by the EEF has found access to one-to-one tuition enables students to make up to 5 months of additional progress, and group tuition enables them to make up to 4 months’ progress. Cutting funding for tutoring will set back efforts to reverse the attainment gap.

At its heart, the attainment gap is caused by underlying poverty and exacerbated by regressive changes to school funding, socially exclusive admissions to top schools, and unequal access to high quality teachers. In 2013 spending per pupil in both state primary and secondary schools in the most deprived areas was more than 30% greater than in the least deprived areas, reflecting the greater challenges faced by those schools. By 2021 this had dropped to around 20%, due largely to reforms to the National Funding Formula in 2018, which disproportionately reduced funding for schools in deprived areas – taking away support from where it is needed the most.

Schools on their own can’t fix all of these issues, but are increasingly expected to fill in gaps in the wider social safety net. In autumn 2022, 56% of head teachers reported an increase in children coming to school hungry, with greater increases in more deprived areas. This coincided with 74% of teachers reporting increases in the number of children being tired or unable to concentrate in lessons.

The Sutton Trust is calling for the next government to set out a long-term national strategy to close the attainment gap. This should include measures such as re-balancing funding back towards schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. Pupil Premium funding targeted at disadvantaged pupils should also be restored to at least 2014/15 levels, reversing the erosion caused by inflation.

The Trust is also calling for a renewed focus on tutoring by the next government. If secured over the long-term and refocused on supporting disadvantaged pupils, the National Tutoring Programme can play a significant role in closing the attainment gap.

Furthermore, free school meals should be extended to the children of all families in receipt of Universal Credit, to take hunger out of the classroom.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and Founder of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The difference in education outcomes between low-income students and their better-off peers – known as the attainment gap – has widened considerably since the pandemic. There needs to be renewed focus on tackling it. The next government needs to do much more for the most disadvantaged youngsters. This means increasing funding for low-income pupils, access to tutoring for the long-term, and to do more to take hunger out of the classroom.

“Coming from a low-income background shouldn’t be a barrier for children to succeed in education and in life.”

Notes to Editors:

  • The attainment gap is measured by looking at the gap in achievement between students from different socio-economic backgrounds, with a focus on family income and socio-economic status. Government data on the attainment gap usually focuses on free school meals (FSM) eligibility. Data is published by the Department for Education (DfE) on overall attainment levels using different measures for different stages of education, from the early years through to A Levels (see below).
  • DfE also publishes a disadvantage gap index. The index was introduced in 2015 to provide a measure that would be more resilient to changes in assessment over time and ranks students relative to one another to enable comparisons between groups. The index ranges from +10 (disadvantaged achieving less than other pupils) to -10 (disadvantaged achieving more) with an index of zero meaning no difference between the groups.
  • The polling referenced comes from the Ipsos Young People Omnibus, an annual survey of pupils aged 11-17 in state schools in England and Wales, in which the Sutton Trust first asked questions about private tutoring in 2005, and then annually since 2009. Fieldwork for the latest data, shown here for the first time, was collected from 3,407 pupils between 6th March and 21st July 2023, through an online questionnaire. Data are weighted by sex, age and region to be representative of the school population.
  • The polling showed that overall 28% of pupils reported ever receiving private tutoring in 2023, compared to 30% in 2022 and 27% in 2019, up from 18% in 2005 when the data began. 9% had received private tutoring in the last school year, down slightly from 10% in 2022.
  • 20% of pupils received tutoring through their school in the last school year, up slightly from 19% in 2022.
  • EEF research on one-to-one tuition is available here.
  • EEF research on small group tuition is available here.
  • Figures for the fall in per pupil spending in the most deprived areas can be found here.
  • Pupil hunger stats can be found in the Sutton Trust’s Cost of Living and Education 2022 report here.

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