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National Tutoring Programme

Volume 819: debated on Thursday 24 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress of the National Tutoring Programme.

My Lords, more than 300,000 tutoring courses began last term, nearing the total figure for the whole of the previous academic year. We remain confident that the National Tutoring Programme is on track to deliver the ambitious target of 2 million courses this academic year. We are particularly pleased with the uptake of the school-led part of the programme, and we are working closely with Randstad to address the challenges in the tuition partner and academic mentor elements.

My Lords, has something not gone wrong with this immensely important programme? Is it not attracting criticism from experts, many of whom regard it as unduly bureaucratic and insufficiently resourced? Why have the Government not done more to involve independent schools? They want to play their part in this programme, in the spirit of the partnership between the two sectors of education which we all want to encourage. I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association.

My noble friend makes a fair point about ensuring that the programme is as unbureaucratic as possible. I know that colleagues are working very closely with Randstad to try to simplify elements of the programme, and that work is happening at pace. I am also aware that a number of partnerships already exist between the independent sector and state-funded schools. We have very much followed the advice we were given by state-funded schools about structuring the programme.

My Lords, Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, was once asked what frightened him most about going into space. He said it was the idea that a thousand different component parts had been put out to the lowest possible tender. This is what has happened with the National Tutoring Programme. Is it not time to stop the complacency, put children first and cancel the contract?

I had not thought about Neil Armstrong for a while. I thank the noble Lord for the reminder, but I do not think that that is an accurate reflection. There is absolutely no complacency in the department about this contract. We are committed to delivering 2 million courses, and we are working extremely closely with Randstad to make sure this happens.

My Lords, what would the Minister say to Garry Ratcliffe, the chief executive of an academy trust of primary schools in a deprived community in Kent? One Saturday morning, 20 or so pupils were gathered together for their tutoring session and 10 minutes beforehand, it was cancelled. We hear from school leaders up and down the country about the poor quality of tutors, their lack of punctuality, “no show” and lack of specialist knowledge. Surely it is time that the financing of this programme be given directly to the schools. Independent schools could be involved to make this a really successful programme.

I remind the noble Lord that the bulk of the programme is being directly delivered by schools; that is what they recommended to government, and we listened. Some 230,000 tuition courses started through the school-led pillar, 52,000 through tuition partners and 20,000 through academic mentors. There is a reason for the blend of approaches. It is clearly unacceptable for a tutor not to turn up, and I hope that Mr Ratcliffe has been able to resolve that.

My Lords, the government figures are for courses which have started, but as the noble Lord pointed out, many of these courses cannot be completed because of no shows by tutors. Does the Minister have any figures for how many courses have been fully completed?

It is relatively early days. I do not have those figures with me, but I am happy to share them with the House if they are available. We will obviously be evaluating the programme, but I reiterate that the vast majority of the courses have been delivered in schools by school staff, so I am surprised at the suggestion that they have not been completed.

My Lords, what monitoring of outcomes and attainment has taken place with the current scheme? If this has happened, has it been broken down into categories, such as black and minority ethnic—including Gypsy, Traveller and Roma—disabled, girls and boys, so that we can see the real picture?

As I say, it is relatively early in the academic year. The programme started in September and if the noble Baroness looks at last year’s data, she will be aware that, even though there were no exams, the numbers taking these courses picked up very strongly ahead of the summer term. As I mentioned, we will be publishing the first stage of the evaluation in autumn 2022.

My Lords, can the Minister be sure that wherever the programmes are being delivered, there is sufficient emphasis on oracy—on speaking and listening? In many communities, particularly deprived ones, there may well have been a loss of confidence in speaking and even much slower language development. Of course, this underpins literacy and numeracy. It is clearly important that oracy should figure significantly in these tutoring programmes.

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of oracy. My understanding is that there is some discretion, so that tutoring can be tailored to the individual needs of the child.

My Lords, can the Minister give us some indication of the bureaucratic costs of delivering these courses outwith the schools? Surely, it would be better if the schools were co-ordinating these from their own resources?

To repeat myself, 230,000 out of almost 300,000 tuition courses are being delivered by the schools themselves.

My Lords, the Minister’s bold attempts at boosterism cannot disguise the fact that the element of the National Tutoring Programme entrusted to Randstad is a car crash. I take no pleasure in saying that Labour warned of this last June, when the contract was awarded to a foreign company with little tutoring experience and no knowledge of our education system. The real tragedy is that the pupils who need it most are those who, in many cases, are being denied it. This was made clear by school heads when they gave evidence to the Education Committee last month, when they described the bureaucratic nightmare involved in trying to access the scheme. In words rather lengthier than those of my noble friend Lord Blunkett, will the Government now accept that this element of the National Tutoring Programme is failing and redirect its resources direct to schools, so that they can buy in resources to bolster their pupils’ recovery?

To reiterate, the Government are absolutely committed to this programme—the tuition and support should go to the children who need it most. We are working on a weekly basis with Randstad to address these issues. We have already made some changes, and improvements are coming through. We will not shy away from our responsibility to these children.

My Lords, the Government like to talk about being “world leading”. However, a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers found that one-fifth of those questioned rated the quality of tutors in the Randstad programme as low or very low, and 39% rated them as average. How can we possibly be achieving world-leading standards of education with such a low base, based on this privatised Dutch company?

I am surprised at the implicit criticism of a company being Dutch; the last time I looked, I think Randstad was pretty global, and I am sure that the noble Baroness would support a global outlook. I can only repeat that we are working with it on a weekly basis, and we are not going to accept second best. This contract, as is normal with many government contracts, is on a one year, plus one year, plus one year basis, with break clauses for both sides. Our priority is delivering for children.

My Lords, global companies are not always best placed for local delivery. I recall that one of the major outside contractors for test and trace was a company headquartered in Miami, whereas local health officers might well have known what they were doing much more quickly. The Government seem to have an overall bias in favour of outsourcing rather than insourcing, despite the clear evidence that outsourcing very often ends up more expensive and less effective. Is it not time that we began to look at the public sector, particularly local authorities, can deliver services, rather than constantly outsourcing them to more expensive external providers?

I just cannot agree with the noble Lord in this case. If we step back and think about what children need, there is more capacity in some schools and less in others to deliver tutoring support, which is happening incredibly effectively, but it is also clear that, in some areas, additional support is required, for example, where there are particular requirements for special educational needs or a particular intensity of this support. This programme was designed to be flexible and to address those needs. We are working with the provider to ensure that happens.