In promising schools £350million for his National Tutoring Programme [NTP], Boris Johnson has, once again, missed the point.
While there is national agreement that the students who have missed almost six months of school need help, the package offered is not going to fit the bill, and for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it does not seem to be coming in any sort of a hurry – it will begin to operate in November, with most of its efforts grinding into gear in the Spring. That is another six months away, months in which headteachers, senior leadership teams and classroom teachers are scrabbling to find solutions to the gaps, prepare for potential new closures (for which we are being given much more rigorous guidelines) and, perhaps hardest of all, reacquaint our children with the routines and ideas of learning.
Our students have come back to school disorientated, volatile, feral.
We have, of course, seen this all before. In April the government promised laptops for disadvantaged children to help them access the online learning; the laptops arrived at the end of July, by which point we were entering official summer holidays and the laptops were presumably used to play Fortnite rather than to watch The Tempest or research the poems of the Great War.
So what can we do to bridge the chasm that has opened up in front of the feet of all our children, but is likely to affect most directly the most needy?
If the tutoring package were to work, we would need the tutors in the schools absolutely now. Our students have come back to school disorientated, volatile, feral. Many are panicking at how much they have missed, how behind they are. Others don’t even care. We have only been back a few days and one of my male students walked out of school after half an hour, with others resisting returning into lessons. If the tutors were there now, they could begin working with individuals and gradually get them back into the classroom; they could work on the children’s self-confidence (which is a huge part of tutoring) as well as their knowledge and learning. With good quality teachers’ feet on the ground, the tutoring could have a positive impact.
But – and here’s another problem – what quality will these tutors be? We are told that while some will be teachers or retired teachers, some will be bussed in after only a couple of weeks of training. Will they even be subject specialists? Teach First, the Government’s last Big Idea to help struggling schools, takes on graduates with good degrees, but often trains them to teach a subject they weren’t even interested enough in to study in university. With thousands of people losing their jobs after lockdown, they will have many applicants willing to take on the job, just to have a job – what effect will that have on struggling students?
Every day that passes is another day wasted.
Good teaching takes all kinds of skills: a solid knowledge of and love for the subject; an ability to communicate that knowledge and love; an ability to engage the most reluctant of students and a certain toughness which can’t really be learned. Johnson and his cronies can have little or no idea about the chalk face of teaching – or, more to the point – being a student in an inner-city, multi lingual, poverty ridden Comprehensive school. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, was himself a Comprehensive school boy, but his belief in the algorithm that was clearly shown to further disadvantage the most disadvantaged begs the question as to how much he remembers his past.
Why can’t the funds be paid directly to schools? Schools with higher percentages of disadvantaged children … could be given a fatter slice of the pie.
Meanwhile, always meanwhile, every day that passes is another day wasted. And there are yet more reasons why the NTP appears to be poorly considered. It is not just that nothing is ready, despite having had six months to think about a way forward. The money has to come through the programme; yet again, bureaucracy is slowing down progress. Why can’t the funds be paid directly to schools? Schools with higher percentages of disadvantaged and special needs children could be given a fatter slice of the pie, and of course the schools would have to be accountable for the money. But we need it now. If we could even afford to have more teachers, smaller classes would immediately have a positive effect – these children need as much individual time as possible to coax them back mentally rather than just physically. More Teaching Assistants could help with the behavioural problems of the children who have gone while as well as give one on one assistance with the very basics – reading, writing, maths – which are needed to be grasped again before progress can be made.
No teachers will ever complain if their schools are given more money, but more thought must be put in to how that money is distributed, and how quickly it gets to the schools. Otherwise the money will be too late, and wasted.
Sophia Waugh is a teacher, writer and journalist.
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