Rethinking the Deep Support offered by the academic tutoring offer

In this think piece Tom Etheridge, City of Norwich School, details the new roles created within the school in order to support their students to improve their academic outcomes.

School Context

City of Norwich School, an Ormiston Academy is an Ofsted Good rated school on the outskirts of Norwich. As one of the largest schools in Norfolk with an intake of 1700 students across years 7-13, our student body is diverse, in terms of prior attainment, parental engagement, socio-economic background and educational needs. Whilst the school itself sits in a 9th decile postcode on the index of multiple deprivations, feeder schools are concentrated in 1st decile areas and Norwich as a city is ranked 323rd out of 324 areas for social mobility (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2019) (Norwich Opportunity Area, 2017). Across Key Stages Three and Four, 21% of students are in receipt of pupil premium, 9% are identified as EAL and 11% have a recognised SEND need. Our school prides itself on being truly comprehensive and shares this in the motto “Excellence in All”.

On induction, staff are introduced to the concept of disadvantage first teaching, and this is reinforced through whole-school objectives, CPD and the focus of our lesson observations. In addition, the school operates as part of the Norwich Opportunity Area, a government initiative to raise standards locally through support for schools, speech and language improvement and support for the transition from school to work (Norwich Opportunity Area, 2017). As such, the school has, for several years, had two academic tutors who have primarily worked with students with more challenging behavioural needs and as urgent intervention for year 11 students approaching their GCSE examinations.

As reflected nationally, the Coronavirus pandemic exposed and exacerbated the existing inequalities within the school and wider society. Long periods of school closures led to a widening in the gap between the educationally engaged and their peers who have historically struggled with school. Analysis from the Education Policy Institute (2021) suggests that students experienced a learning loss of between 1.5 and 2 months. For disadvantaged pupils, the learning loss was one month greater at 2.5 to 3 months. At CNS, our tracking of reading ages across Year 7, suggests the difference between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils was slightly greater, with our disadvantaged pupils three months behind their advantaged peers. Interventions for reading have proved successful with pupil premium students who had intervention being an average of seven months ahead of pupil premium students who had not received intervention.

As a school, we were also acutely aware that the pandemic had created new inequalities and had led to students falling behind because of a lack of parental engagement or educational background, as well as those that struggled with their welfare and mental health. Some students also found the extended lessons implemented to reduce travel around the school site a challenge – with three 100-minute lessons replacing five 60-minute lessons. This was particularly difficult for some students with attention-related difficulties.

A New Role

As part of the Catch-Up funding provided to the school, the academic tutoring team was expanded from a team of two to a team of six, to broaden and deepen the intervention offer. A new role of Catch-Up Impact Co-ordinator was created, and I was appointed in January ’21.

One of the first tasks was to help shift the priorities of the academic tutoring team to more accurately reflect its purpose – to improve academic outcomes. For some time, the tutoring team had been used as an ersatz inclusion team for students with extremes of behaviour or an alternative placement for students who had been withdrawn from a strand of the curriculum. It was clear that this needed to change, and move towards an attainment-focused programme, for academic tutoring to become an effective programme for educational improvement.

A referral form was created and shared with our pastoral and faculty leadership teams, which asked for specific foci for intervention as well as the intended outcomes. Time frames for change were suggested (for example, student A needs two sessions to catch up on missed work whilst isolating, student B needs six weeks of work to build core skills) so that the tutoring team could have maximum impact on the students they work with. This was not a change that came easily. The needs of students who had been working with academic tutors for lengthy periods or who were working with no goals had to be reassessed. Previous arrangements for placing students lacking in confidence into academic tutoring on a semi-permanent basis needed to end. As this change has been realised, we have seen a shift in the members of staff referring pupils to the tutors, from our pastoral leaders to our academic leaders and class teachers. This is a culture shift within the school and will need time and work to cement; ultimately, we want to be in a position where classroom teachers are proactively requesting tutoring for students before summative assessments are undertaken and before the damage to student self-efficacy is done.

Best practice for tutoring programmes was explored through existing literature. The Education Endowment Foundation (2020) recommends that tuition be focussed on areas that pupils would most benefit from and that shorter sessions may be particularly beneficial for younger pupils. This was quickly implemented for tutoring sessions. Referrers were asked for specific foci for tuition, and some tuition sessions were split into two – so students received tuition for two subjects in two 45-minute sessions, rather than one 100-minute session. This led to improved behaviour and engagement from students, particularly those with SEND needs.

Preparing for GCSEs

As part of a shift towards to proactive tutoring offer, faculty and pastoral teams were tasked with looking at the options Year 9 students had selected for their GCSE study and selecting students who could benefit from a preparatory course of intervention. Leaders were invited to take particular notice of students in receipt of pupil premium – Hirsch (2016, p. 167) talks of the 30 million word gap, the difference in the number of words a child hears in a professional family compared to a child in a ‘welfare family’, a facsimile for the British Pupil Premium recipient.

These preparatory courses are still taking place, in the final half-term of the year and once Year 11 students had departed, making use of the time this made available in the tutoring team.  The content of the courses has varied. In English, this could be ensuring that students are familiar with the ‘what, how why’ technique used across the school. In preparing for sociology, the introductory work is ensuring that students are aware of the content of the unfamiliar subject, as well as introducing the students to the different types of questions that need answering.

This tutoring aims to ensure that students, particularly those that are most disadvantaged, are not starting their Key Stage 4 study on the backfoot, and to help students, particularly those whose families lack educational capital, ensure they have chosen the right options, as some courses being offered at GCSE that are not explicitly taught at Key Stage 3. As a result of this intervention, some students have changed an option as the course wasn’t going to be what they thought it would involve.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

The tutors who had a long history with the school were concerned that a renewed focus on impact would lead to a loss of what they saw as a key part of their role, the wider effects of their tutoring, on confidence, language and social skills. I was keen to ensure that by evaluating the impact of academic tutoring I would not merely be calculating the quantitative changes in academic performance for students – even if that is the key indicator of a successful tutoring programme – but also seeking to quantify the abstract improvements in student self-confidence, the methodology for which is discussed later. In discussions, tutors would describe these skills as ‘soft-skills’ but this does a disservice to the importance, both in whole-child development and academic progress that these increases in confidence and other progress-adjacent skills bring, and as such, these will be referred to as attainment-enabling skills.

The core focus of this think piece was to generate a methodology for evaluating the change in attainment-enabling skills enacted by academic tutoring. It was felt that this was an important aspect of our tutoring efforts, yet there was only (limited) anecdotal evidence to support this claim. Measuring academic progress (in a standard academic year) is fairly straightforward. Results can be tracked, right down to question level analysis, through summative assessments and formative in-class tasks. The advent of spaced practice and retrieval quizzes has perhaps allowed for this evidence to be more apparent than ever. Measuring the effect of, for example, English intervention on writing confidence in geography is more difficult.

Previous studies have found a significant relationship between self-efficacy (and self-confidence) and performance (Pietsch, et al., 2003), (Akomolafe, et al., 2013). Students who feel like they can achieve are more likely to achieve, attend school and experience lower levels of school-related anxiety. Further, there is a strong association between increasing attainment-enabling skills and positive academic outcomes, financial stability and adulthood, employment and a reduction in crime – all of which is seen most keenly in low-attaining pupils (Gutman & Schoon, 2013).

Children’s perception of their ability, their expectations of future success, and the extent to which they value an activity influence their motivation and persistence leading to improved academic outcomes, especially for low-attaining pupils.

To measure the attainment-enabling skills and changes in student self-efficacy, students are now asked to complete an online survey at the beginning and end of their tutoring offer. This repeated questionnaire consists primarily of Likert-type questioning, guided by the work of Cohen et al (2011). Likert-type questioning, that is the rating of a statement on a given scale, is a useful tool for the researcher in that they build a degree of sensitivity (as opposed to Boolean-type dichotomous questioning) and differentiation whilst still generating ordinal data.

There will always be limitations to questionnaires in that the phrasing of answers is up to respondents, the use of the anchor words will guide a degree of discrimination but not remove the problems with learner interpretation of the answer terms. Research by Hartley and Betts (2010) was also accounted for and labels are provided for scores (strongly agree, agree etc.) to reduce confusion, along with ordering from negative to positive which is found to be the order expected by respondents to surveys. The questionnaire also includes an open-ended question to gather student’s perceptions of what they have gained from academic tutoring.

In the survey, students are asked to rate their confidence on an increasingly macroscopic basis, from the specific focus of the tutoring sessions (for example covalent bonding) to the wider subject (chemistry) to school as a whole. For each of these stages, students were asked to rate their confidence against three key competencies and confidences: overall, answering questions verbally, answering exam-style questions. Unfortunately, results at this point are limited as the majority of the questionnaires were taken at the start of the preparation for GCSE tutoring, which will be finishing in the coming weeks. The results will form part of the Impact Report for academic tutoring. Initial results, however, do point to improvements in self-efficacy across every level asked.

Responses from the open-response questions also demonstrated the wider impact of academic tutoring. Of the comments submitted as part of the post-tutoring survey, when asked what academic tutoring had done for them students responded with a mixture of topic-specific (“I understand urbanisation more… I also understand the CBD”), topic-adjacent (“Better at using key terminology”, “Tutoring has reminded me how to use grammar like . , : and how to start a sentence with a verb”) and attainment-enabling skills (“I am more willing to answer questions in class”, “I feel more confident asking for support in lessons”).

The Future

There are many unknowns about the future of academic tutoring at CNS, not least the lack of clarity surrounding the future of catch-up funding. However, what is known is that some of the changes from this year will continue to benefit students going forward. My principal hope for the future of academic tutoring is that there continues to be a shift in the culture towards proactive referrals to the programme from classroom teachers – if we know student X missed their unit on quadratic formula through illness, a referral for a session of tutoring can close the knowledge gap effectively and prevent disengagement from learning that builds on the missed content.

As our assessment procedures and principles are reviewed, I’m keen that the data becomes more useful for identifying students in need of tutoring, as well as using the data to monitor the effect of academic tutoring on student progress. As a school, we have already been asking our feeder primaries to supply information on who could benefit from tuition due to missed learning or under-achievement, which will mean that our tutoring team will be ready to support students from their first day.

Bibliography

Akomolafe, M. J., Ogunmakin, A. O. & Gbemisola, M. F., 2013. The Role of Academic Self-Efficacy, Academic Motivation and Academic Self-Concept in Predicting Secondary School Students’ Academic Performance. Journal of Educational and Social Research, 3(2), pp. 335-342.

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K., 2011. Research Methods in Education. 7th ed. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge.

Education Endowment Foundation, 2020. The EEF Guide to Supporting School Planning: A Tiered Approach to 2021, London, UK: The Education Endowment Foundation.

Google, 2021. Scholar: Citations of Research Methods in Education by Cohen. [Online] Available at: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?cites=12147859807550400097&as_sdt=2005&sciodt=0,5&hl=en
[Accessed 27 03 2021].

Gutman, L. M. & Schoon, I., 2013. The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people, London: Institute of Education.

Hartley, J. & Betts, L. R., 2010. Four layouts and a finding: the effects of changes in the order of the verbal labels and numerical values on Likert‐type scales. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 13(1), pp. 17-27.

Hirsch, E. D., 2016. Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From Failed Educational Theories. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Jamieson, S., 2004. Likert Scales: How to (ab)use them. Medical Education, 38(12), pp. 1212-1218.

Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2019. Indices of Deprivation 2019 explorer. [Online] Available at: http://dclgapps.communities.gov.uk/imd/iod_index.html
[Accessed 30 04 2021].

Norwich Opportunity Area, 2017. Norwich Opportunity Area 2017-20 Delivery Plan, London, UK: Department for Education.

Pietsch, J., Walker, R. & Chapman, E., 2003. The relationship among self-concept, self-efficacy, and performance in mathematics during secondary school.. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), pp. 589-603.

Renaissance Learning, Education Policy Institute, 2021. Understanding Progress in the 2020/21 Academic Year, London, UK: Department for Education.

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