Bridging the gap: UK university students tutor disadvantaged pupils

mivery Monday, after a long day of college, Fardowsa Ahmed logged on to her computer to take a night class in GCSE biology. She was exhausted, but she needed the qualification to start her nursing degree in the autumn. In two hours, her teacher covered material that GCSE pupils spend four to five classes on, with no time for questions.

Ahmed quickly found herself struggling to cope, but paying £25 an hour for private tutoring was out of the question.

Then she found the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative (CTI), a network of 4,000 university student volunteers across the UK who collectively have given up 35,000 hours of their time since the beginning of the pandemic to tutor 2,000 school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds for free, despite experiencing their own anxieties over missed teaching, financial pressures and Covid outbreaks on campus.

Ahmed was paired with Hasan al-Habib, who is completing his PhD in oncology at the University of Cambridge. Once a week, he logs on to the tutoring platform to teach biology to Ahmed, who before lockdown decamped to a cafe to escape her crowded household and poor wifi connection.

“I’d heard on the news about the chaos students were facing with exams, which I know would have stressed me out a lot,” says Habib. "Pensé: given how lucky you are to be here, you should probably do something for someone else who didn’t have the same opportunities. I go through Fardowsa’s presentations from her evening classes and I think they’re not easy to understand.”

Ahmed says the one-to-one support has “really made a difference” to her understanding of the key concepts in biology. “He’s giving his time to me, that’s the amazing thing, and I need to use that wisely and get the grade I want.”

The scheme is unconnected to the government’s national tutoring programme (NTP), which is aimed at helping pupils catch up with lost learning but has recently been criticised for employing underage tutors in Sri Lanka who are paid as little as £1.57 an hour.

En lugar de, it is the brainchild of Jacob Kelly, a final year philosophy, politics and economics student at Oxford University, who launched a call for tutors on social media when the first lockdown began last March.

“It struck me quickly when the government announced school closures that something needed to happen because there would be a lot of kids missing out on the face-to-face teaching they sorely needed, and we knew the attainment gap [between richer and poorer pupils] in the UK was pretty huge," él dice.

Kelly thinks the demand from parents and pupils is evidence of just how much extra tuition is needed as a result of the pandemic. But he has been equally surprised by the enthusiasm of his fellow students: dentro de 24 horas, 3,000 volunteers had signed up. He says their passion for their subjects has proven invaluable in preventing pupils drifting away from education over successive lockdowns.

CTI teamed up with the international non-profit group Project Access for help with its infrastructure and funding, although it remains a grassroots organisation run by 60 volunteers who regularly work for up to 20 hours a week unpaid.

Kelly has since stepped away to focus on his finals and begin a graduate job with the charity Tutor the Nation, but the remaining team of volunteers plan for CTI to continue after the pandemic.

Laura Prince, one of the organisers, says students have not lost their enthusiasm despite lockdown being eased. She received about 1,000 responses to a recent callout asking for tutors to spend five hours delivering subject-specific Q&As over Easter, when many have exams and dissertations to prepare.

She attributes this to how visibly effective tutoring is. “I’ve seen how much it brought up the grades of students I was working with, we’re talking more difference than I really realised. But you associate tutoring with a level of privilege. By offering one-to-one tuition my perspective was we could do something to help pupils keep up and bridge that gap.”

The student volunteers consider their sacrifices worth it – and many feel they have benefited equally. Alec Morley, a second year medicine student at Cambridge University, has been shielding since last March and has appreciated the opportunity for human connection.

“I could see all my colleagues working on the frontline, friends volunteering to give vaccinations and I felt, what can I give back?" él dijo. “The thing that’s allowed me to do that is the CTI so I’m actually really thankful it was set up.”

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