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Lessons learned from implementing online tuition in schools

A pending government announcement of a year-long national tutoring programme to support disadvantaged young people as they catch up on missed learning during the coronavirus lockdown has attracted much press attention. Dr Wayne Harrison, Managing Director and Founder of Peer Tutor, gives his expert opinion on the scheme and the unexpected pitfalls that government could face if not approached carefully. 

The Students Facing 6 Months of Lost Learning

A report from Professor Francis Green released on Monday titled 'Schoolwork in lockdown: new evidence on the epidemic of educational poverty' highlights a growing attainment chasm rather than gap facing our education system due to COVID-19. All educators understand the challenge of a six week learning loss for pupils in the summer, spending many Septembers reengaging students with education and trying to catch up. In a post-lockdown environment, the UCL report predicts over 2 million learners will not have completed learning in 6 months by the time schools return, presenting a huge challenge to the education system.

It is great to see that the government is responding to this challenge by potentially releasing funds for a National Tutoring Scheme for disadvantaged pupils affected by the school closures. However, deploying online tutoring programmes is not as straight forward as many ministers might believe if the traditional model, using online booking systems is used.

The Essential Requirements for Successful Tutoring

When I first established Peerz Academy, the aim was to use online peer tutoring to support learners who could not afford private tuition. Research evidence shows that peer tutoring has a similar impact of 5+ additional months of progress to one to one tuition, if this is structured correctly. We built a prototype platform to provide a secure online classroom booking system and created content for GCSE maths and English to standardise the online lessons.

For two years, we worked with regional universities to deliver online peer tutoring in North East schools, using undergraduates to tutor disadvantaged pupils. I had also completed online peer tutoring programmes as part of my PhD at Durham University using secondary pupils to peer teach maths to primary students. Here are a few lessons I have learned, as the implementation of online programmes is crucial for the success of the intervention.

  1. Firstly, using a traditional online booking system is logistically a nightmare to coordinate if delivered in school time. Time is a precious commodity for teachers, so unless a dedicated member of staff has additional time to manage the online programme, these will struggle to get started. The logistical barriers of booking computer rooms, availability of headsets with microphones and ensuring computers work prior to the delivery are all barriers to implementation. Chewing gum in headset ports and sound setting permissions across schools were a common barrier we encountered once the programmes had started!

  2. Secondly, we are dealing with teenagers and for the programmes we delivered, we often worked with pupils who were already disengaged with learning maths and English. For in-school delivery programmes, we had to rely on teachers escorting pupils to the computer rooms and if scheduled after school, no-shows from learners were an issue, as a high proportion of learners chose not to attend. When we tested a home delivery model, even with an email and text reminder system, we found that, not surprisingly, a high number of teenagers would forget that they had booked a lesson on a particular day and time. As a model, the cost for paying tutors when learners did not show was not an efficient and cost-effective intervention for schools.

  3. Thirdly, as we used undergraduates to deliver the online lessons, we often found that from an administrative process, we had to find replacement tutors if a seminar was over running or a last minute change to lectures meant that they could not deliver the online lesson. At scale, this approach to using traditional booking systems would require a too much human monitoring to operate effectively.

Reimagining Peer Tutoring as the Uber of Learning

In November 2018, we decided to go back to the drawing board in how we looked at delivering online learning to teenagers. Our business joined forces with leading educational charity NCFE to see if we could rethink the delivery model.

And Peer Tutor was born - a mobile solution for instant, on-demand learning for pupils. We have removed the booking system and replaced this with a model similar to other on-demand services such as Uber.

Once a Peer Tutor is verified and trained, they are able to use a toggle on their app to let our system know that they are available to support learners for either questions and feedback or live lesson requests. As a learner, all they have to do to get started is download the app and if they are sponsored, add a voucher code to access sponsored credit to receive support.

Schools are already busy places and implementing school based online programmes presents numerous logistical barriers to overcome. Also, if a pupil is in school, teachers are best placed to deliver interventions, which will have the most impact. It is when pupils leave the school environment that the attainment gap occurs between those pupils receiving private one to one tutoring and those who do not.

Safe Peer to Peer Learning in the Palm of Their Hand

With accessibility in mind, Peer Tutor is designed to work on mobile phones for the question and feedback instant support. If a learner is struggling with their revision or a past exam question, they receive instant help from a verified peer. If they require further support, the learner can request a live lesson and our system will match them with DBS verified tutors who can deliver a lesson within 10 minutes, rather than book and forget to attend later in the week. We have partnered with leading educational publisher Collins to provide the live lesson content for our peer tutors to deliver, which gives reassurance to parents and teachers on the quality of content being delivered.

As we are part of an educational charity, Peer Tutor has been built on the principle of safety by design. We have partnered with the global leader in content moderation so that all text and images sent between learners and tutors are proactively screened by Artificial Intelligence and any requiring moderation are done so by a human. We do not include tutor profile images, and we verify and train all tutors. Our live lessons can only be delivered by DBS verified peers. Furthermore, all lessons are recorded for safe-guarding but also to support learners, as they are able to replay these in the future to support their revision

Finally, as A Level students are able to support GCSE learners, we have enabled tutors to transfer the credits they earn so that they can use this for the support that they personally require for their own studies. Therefore, the financial barrier is removed for learners who themselves would like to receive one to one support when they are studying for their A levels, outside of the classroom.

Our experience means that we have learned a great deal from the challenges of delivering online learning programmes and I hope that when the government announces a national tutoring programme later in the week, they seriously consider the practical implications for commissioning the delivery of this type of intervention in schools.

Here is a one minute video to explain how the Peer Tutor app works:


You can find out more about the app by visiting our dedicated webpage.

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