‘Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative’: How one Oxford student is helping thousands of children in lockdown

The Cambridge Tab spoke to the founder of this initiative for students without remote access to private tutoring

In all honesty, I skim read most of Toope’s emails. But at the end of April, I gave one a slightly more thorough glance and came across Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, a brilliant project that aims to bridge the gap for students who are worried about falling behind while schools are shut. I had some spare time on my hands this term, (Exams? Who is she?) and thought tutoring would help keep me occupied. More importantly, it could be a way for me to give back to the wider community in this uncertain and frightening time.

The scheme was set up by Jacob Kelly, a current Oxford student, and is a platform for current university students to tutor children aged 11-18 who don’t have the means to access conventional private tuition. A few months into my own experience as a tutor (my A-Level Maths students are really lovely and are making great progress) I interviewed some of the CTI team to find out more about the scheme, and show you why you should get involved too.

Jacob has volunteered with Target Oxbridge and other access projects in the past, so as lockdown unfolded, his mind immediately turned to those now in need of greater academic support. “When I saw that schools were closing I felt I had to do something to help those students missing out. I also knew that a lot of my friends at university were sat around with nothing to do so it made sense to pair up the two groups!”

Oxford students are currently the most represented in the pool of tutors, with Cambridge coming second (this hurts me just like those Oxford vaccine memes). “Initially we signed up 3000 tutors and thought we didn’t actually have enough tutees, so that’s when a wider team got involved, especially for publicity, and asked universities to contact schools they were involved with. Then the reverse happened and now we have too many pupils.”

The team at CTI is now on a drive to sign up more tutors for all subjects, but some subjects will continue to be in higher demand than others. “Based on the tutor to tutee ratio for A-Level subjects, computer science, physics and further maths are the most heavily subscribed.” Other subjects face a more even distribution but there are also some interesting outliers. Swedish at GCSE, for example, is desperately in need of tutors, while Norwegian has too many tutors and too few tutees.

Tutoring options are really flexible

When signing up to be a tutor, you select subjects you are willing to teach, how many students you wish to take on, and at what level, be it KS3, GCSE or A-Level. “The low time commitment per student means it’s not a large ask and you can take on just one student if you want”. The matching of tutors and tutees is then done in part with an algorithm but a human team is on hand when problems arise. “It assigns each tutor a number and then as a tutee signs up they go to the next available tutor for their subject. It is completely random.”

Once matched, tutors and tutees email back and forth to arrange an initial session and can decide between them how much or how little they want to do a week and to establish what kind of help tutees need. My students have asked for two sessions a week each, however with exams this week and next they were happy to cut down according to my schedule. Ultimately, given that the help is free, no tutor is obligated to teach when they don’t have the time, and if tutors feel they’ve taken on too many students, the support team can easily rematch tutees.

The team at CTI is really proud of what they’ve already achieved, but want to keep momentum and continue helping students. “We hope that at the end of this crisis we can keep this going. There are a lot of people at university who volunteer elsewhere, and come September might not be able to do their volunteering in person for social distancing reasons, who could then channel that energy, effort and time into this, something which is solely online.”

However, beyond volunteers, a massive part of the project’s ability to continue is funding. “At the moment, our funding comes from a couple of different places. Initially, everything was funded out of Jacob’s pocket but once we started working with Project Access we started accepting donations which allowed us to offset those costs. Since then, we’ve been running based on the generosity of those donations and also some grants, both from Jacob’s college in Oxford and an organization called PeaceFirst who helped us out very early on.”

CTI has used Instagram to give prospective students and tutors an insight into the scheme.

Recently CTI has been gathering feedback from tutees to get an idea of the success of the project. Lots of responses came in so we discussed a few of them. “One student who left feedback said ‘I’m so grateful and thankful for this opportunity. It has really eased my mind while studying at home.’ It’s great to hear that feedback both to know the scheme is working but also to legitimise ourselves, so when we are talking to the government and schools, we can show the kids are benefitting from it.”

Showing these organisations what CTI is capable of is probably one of the initiative’s biggest hurdles. Without support, they have a limited scope, but with external backing and endorsement, the potential for growth is huge. “There have been articles in the papers discussing how we need a volunteer army of recent graduates to help bridge the gap for students, and we want to shout and say ‘look over here, we are doing it’. The goal now is to work with other organisations to try to come up with a long term strategy. Everything does take a while with the government though, and we want to make an impact alongside other charities without stepping on anyone’s toes.”

The success so far has come down to hard work from the main team but also the tutors themselves. Thousands of hours have been put in so far, but it isn’t just explaining content and concepts that make this scheme special. It’s the fact that students get to learn from someone who understands what it’s like to be in their position. “’Near to peer’ is a great way of explaining why the students are finding it particularly helpful. Tutors are near in age to the students, remember the content well and are very approachable because they don’t consider you an adult who is ‘above’ them, decades older than them. You can be a bit of a role model and a bit more relatable.” I’ve certainly felt this way about my own students. I’m often offering exam advice I learned from my own experiences two years ago. For some students in large classes who simply don’t receive as much attention, inspiring a bit of confidence is crucial, as they often understand the content but haven’t had the chance to discuss it and feel secure with it.

An incredibly helpful Facebook community for tutors has also formed, where we can share resources and give advice. Having thrown out a lot of my old notes, I’ve found this really helpful for refreshing my memory on certain topics. “It has been amazing. Without us even trying people were sharing resources and it’s so helpful because with 2000 tutors, someone else will be having the same problem and can help.” I’m always so impressed by the positivity of tutors and their willingness to help, and this extends beyond the sessions themselves. “We’ve been running a meet the tutors campaign and so many tutors have sent messages wanting to get involved, more than we could put up on the Instagram. They’ve all said they really enjoy it, and think it’s so worthwhile as they see an improvement in their tutees. Every tutor we’ve spoken to is behind the message of free tutoring for the most disadvantaged, which is the core of our mission.”

Of course, I’m biased, but I really can’t recommend signing up enough. You’re helping out someone who wants to learn and do well but through no fault of their own has had their academic path blocked. As the CTI team has said: “Without being mushy, people are good at heart and they want to help. This is an easy way for them to do that and put their past knowledge into practice.” To sign up to tutor click here, or if you are short on time but have a little cash spare to donate to help keep the website up and fund the project’s growth click here.

Cover Image Credit: Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative

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