Regulating all online education providers

online education providers
© Konstantin Yuganov |

The time has come for online education providers to become accredited by the British Government, says David McCarthy, Director of Education at Sophia Technologies

It is difficult to know who to trust these days when it comes to educating your children. Are there regional differences in the quality of teaching/tutoring? Is the same amount of money being invested in each part of the country? Are teachers’/tutors’ claims to be qualified individuals, true? To what extent are teachers/tutors in tutoring companies being thoroughly security checked? What level of safeguarding training have they received? How much are certain tutoring companies benefitting from the tax payer’s money? These problems have been further exacerbated by the Government’s National Tutoring Programme.

The National Tutoring Programme

The National Tutoring Programme is a government-funded, sector-led initiative to support schools in addressing the impact of Covid-19 school closures on pupils’ learning.(1) The government is committing £350m to the NTP to provide subsidised one-on-one or small group tutoring to schools in England. The £350m national tutoring programme promises high quality subsidised tuition for disadvantaged children. Schools can choose from the approved tuition partners and pay 25% of the cost, while the government picks up the rest of the bill. The government has partnered up with 33 tuition companies to help deliver this programme.(2)

However, the Programme has recently been hit with scandalous headlines splashed across the newspapers. The government’s aim was noble; it stated that for the 2020-21 school year, the National Tutoring Programme would make high-quality tuition available to state-maintained primary and secondary schools, providing additional support to help pupils who have missed out the most as a result of school closures. There has been a substantial attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their classmates – and the EEF’s analysis (3)suggests this is likely to be growing significantly while schools were closed to most pupils.

There is extensive evidence(4)showing the impact of tutoring to support pupils who have fallen behind. However, access to tutoring is often limited to the schools and parents that can most afford it. It’s estimated that around 80% of disadvantaged pupils currently don’t have access to quality tuition. The aims of the National Tutoring Programme were to support schools in addressing this.

The first problem the government had to face was how to tackle the north/south divide when it comes to providing tuition. New data(5)has revealed big variations in take-up of the government’s National Tutoring Programme across England, with schools in the south far more likely to have enrolled their pupils than those in the north.

Figures provided by the NTP show the scheme has reached 100 per cent of its target number of schools in the South-West of England and 96.1% in the South-East; in London it was 74.7%, but just 58.8% in the North-East, 58.9% in Yorkshire & the Humber and 59.3% in the North-West.

Chris Zarraga(6), director of Schools North East, which represents about 1,150 schools in the region, said applying a “one-size-fits-all approach” to tutoring did not take into account “huge regional differences, including the significant levels of long-term, high-impact disadvantage in the North-East, which has been exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19”.

Another key factor plaguing the programme was the quality of its tutors/teachers. Fewer than one in 10 of the organisations that applied to become a Tuition Partner were approved, reflecting how competitive the process was. Each Tuition Partner was assessed against quality standards related to evidence, safeguarding and value-for-money. The Government stated that The NTP is proud of its approved Tuition Partners. We were told that what links the government’s Tuition Partners together is that they all provide high-quality, school-based tutoring that is designed to support disadvantaged pupils.

However, after the revelations printed by The Guardian(7) that one of the government’s tuition partners was using 17-year-old Sri-Lankan students and paying some of them as little as £1.57 an hour, questions are beginning to emerge on how these Tuition Partners were chosen. Indeed, this has raised the eyebrows of many educators. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “First of all there’s a question about whether it’s ethical to be paying £1.57 to £3.07 an hour, outsourcing in this way. It also raises a bigger issue about why this money is being paid to the private sector whose objective in life must be to make a profit.”(8)

Is the taxpayer getting value for money, or are these companies making a huge profit and taking advantage of the situation, that COVID has placed us under? Third Space Learning, the tutoring company under attack, has been defended by the government; they state that every Third Space Learning tutor goes through a three-week full-time training course, designed in partnership with University College London… the course covers the primary maths curriculum, guidance on engaging pupils and safeguarding, as well as best practices in online learning. Tutors receive ongoing weekly professional development meetings, frequent lesson evaluations and personalised feedback.

The government continued to respond to these criticisms by stating:

The NTP expects all Tuition Providers to follow all applicable laws and regulations and pay their tutors fairly. Third Space Learning tutors are paid very competitively in the countries they are based in, with the average tutor receiving around 2.5 times the average graduate salary. While our focus may be on supporting schools in England, it is right that we look outwards and harness all the expertise we can to do this. It does not – and should not – matter where an online tutor is based. What matters most is the quality of the support that they can give children and young people…Some young people in Sri Lanka begin their undergraduate studies aged 17. Third Space Learning employs a very small number of 17-year-old undergraduates as tutors – roughly 0.3% of their tutor workforce. However, all tutors working as part of the NTP will be over the age of 18. The average age of Third Space Learning tutors is 24 years old.

However, after the Guardian’s revelations the Department for Education (DfE) has bowed down to pressure and has now announced the suspension of the NTP’s use of under-18s as tutors, and pledged a review of the use of overseas-based tutors in the coming year. A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We set high standards for the national tutoring programme and do not hesitate to take action where it becomes clear those standards are not being met…Third Space has now suspended the use of anyone under 18 as tutors within the programme. Stringent ongoing monitoring of all organisations involved in the programme is in place to make sure tutoring is of a high quality.”(9)

TLS have defended their mark up of almost 1200 %. They were paying some of their Sri-Lankan tutors £1.57, whilst charging the taxpayer £18.33 for 1-to-1 tuition for an hour! It is fairly standard practice that the tuition company gets about 30% to cover their costs, and still make a healthy profit.

“Every TSL session for the national tutoring programme costs £18.33, £9.50 of which pays for programme design, customer support, technology and finance in its London office, with £5.36 for tutor training and development at the Colombo office, and on average £3.07 per tutor per session… The company makes 2% profit on each NTP session, which equates to 40p.”(10)

The Tutors’ Association, which says it represents more than 40,000 tutors in the UK, has also been critical of the government’s handling of the NTP. They believed that the national programme’s managers “strongly favoured organisations with which they had worked before ahead of professional tutoring organisations”(11)and in some cases selected providers with no track record of delivering tuition to schoolchildren, or those relying on inexperienced volunteers.

John Nichols, president of the Tutors’ Association, stated: “Disadvantaged children are getting a bad deal. It’s like the food parcels all over again,” referring to the scandal during the Christmas holidays when some school meal providers were found to be supplying inadequate or over-priced lunch packages.

The statement by the Tutors’ Association said the use of underage, low-paid tutors was “only the tip of an iceberg of mismanagement of public money”. It noted that Nesta, one of the organisations working with the EEF to manage the first phase of the NTP, is an investor in Third Space Learning.

Critics condemned this as another example of the government outsourcing support and services in its pandemic response and said the funding – which is part of a £1.7 billion catch-up fund announced last year – should have gone directly to schools to source their own tutors, rather than through a complex system of private providers.

Adam Caller, the founder of Tutors International has stated(12)– “The obvious issues are that tutors are being underpaid and that the private companies engaged by the NTP have not disclosed where the mark-up is going… Do we really want to be attracting the least qualified people to carry out the biggest educational catch-up job in history? Significantly short-changing the tutors on this programme makes the quality of tuition something of a lottery.”

Whilst it is easy to play the blame game, this is not really the point of this article. The only way that governments, schools, parents and teachers can have faith in online education providers is by making them more accountable. This will never happen whilst the tuition companies are unregulated. The Government needs to take the next steps with their Online Education Accreditation Scheme, which they published back in September 2019, with their consultation Report being published in June 2020(13). If carried out, this will bring about greater accountability to online education providers. Each online education provider would be inspected and would therefore have to have passed rigorous checks (much like an Ofsted report in a physical school), before it can become accredited. This would then bring about greater credibility to online education providers and also bring about greater peace of mind to parents who are booking teachers/tutors online. Parents tend to take things for granted and make assumptions, which have proved to be false in the past.

All parents want are qualified teachers who are experts in their field; teachers who have passed all security and safeguarding checks; teachers who are good communicators and have a passion in their subject; teachers who have also received appropriate safeguarding training, when dealing with students online. Society also wants teachers who are paid a fair wage for this service and are not being exploited by the education providers they work for. If the above had been in place, perhaps some of the more recent problems the NTP experienced would never had occurred. Until this happens, governments have to be more thorough in their checks, when it comes to the NTP. Parents will also need to be savvier. Just because a tuition company or an online school is cheap, this should definitely not be the factor when choosing one. Look to see what the quality of teachers is like; how many students are in each class; is the curriculum being covered; have all the teachers/tutors been personally interviewed; have they had their references checked, and have they passed all security and safeguarding measures (parents often forget about this – think about it – in which walk of life would you ever introduce a total stranger into your child’s life, who has not been security checked?)

Let us hope that the day comes when all online education providers are accredited by the Government, trust is restored and parents can sleep easier knowing that the tutor/teacher they chose online is purely there to help their child progress up the educational ladder.















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