‘We need to level up education in south-west England’

Florence Milner, from MyTutor, says online tutoring can help support students in disadvantaged rural areas like south-west England

The south-west of England is a prime staycation destination – many of us will pack up our cars this summer and head down to the winding lanes and heaving beaches.

But, the economic disadvantage in the south-west is often overlooked. The area is all but forgotten when it comes to the levelling Uup conversation, which focuses on a North/South divide.

A report by Prof Lee Elliot Major, based at the University of Exeter, showed that only 40% of disadvantaged students in the south-west achieved a standard pass in GCSE English and Maths in 2019 compared to nearly 60% in inner London.

University progression rates for disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged young people are also the lowest of all regions. A tiny 17% of disadvantaged students there went to university in 2018/19, contrasted with 45% in London.

Action needs to be taken to support young people in the region. Poverty often wears an urban face but being underprivileged is debilitating whether you live in an inner-city high rise or a crumbling cottage. There are benefits to growing up in the countryside, but there are downsides to being educated in a rural area, and we should be realistic about these so we can address them.

Cities afford more opportunities on the doorstep, and there are more extracurricular activities or work experience options than in the countryside.

Another key issue is access to extra educational support, especially in terms of tutoring.  The Sutton Trust has commented that many of the largest private tuition agencies are based in the capital, suggesting that tuition can be more accessible to Londoners than those in rural communities. It has also been noted that tutoring tends to be in more strongly demand, and more easily available, in urban than in rural areas, exacerbating geographic inequalities.

As the dust settles on the vast educational disruption caused by the pandemic, the importance of tutoring, not just to help children catch up to a median standard, but also to support gifted children to achieve their full potential, is becoming clearer.

The Department for Education’s recent Schools White Paper stated that up to 6 million tutoring courses will be introduced by 2024 and that action will be taken to cement tuition as a permanent feature of the school system. In his report, Prof Elliot Major acknowledges that tutoring is one of the few educational approaches with a considerable evidence base showing the potential to increase student attainment at scale.

Some schools in the south-west signed up to use the online tutoring platform MyTutor as part of the National Tutoring Programme, helping to address any lack of access to in-person tutors locally. We’re glad that more young people have been linked up with our undergraduate tutors, as this nearby peer support is invaluable for young people in rural schools. Indeed, the aforementioned report on social mobility commented on how using university students as tutors can help to raise aspirations for young people.

Connecting students with tutors anywhere in the country from a range of different backgrounds, who are studying a variety of subjects, with a view to pursuing a plethora of different careers is especially pertinent for those in the south-west. Most areas in the region have a higher percentage of routine jobs and a lower number of managerial and professional jobs than the UK average. The countryside and beaches of the peninsula are a big draw, so it’s no surprise that tourism and service jobs are dominant, but it can mean that it’s harder for young people to imagine all the different career paths out there. Taking Devon as an example, in 2019 almost half the employment in the county was in the health, retail and tourism industries.

Connecting students with tutors anywhere in the country from a range of different backgrounds, who are studying a variety of subjects, with a view to pursuing a plethora of different careers is especially pertinent for those in the south-west

The relative lack of diversity in local industries also means that if parents do seek a traditional, local tutor, they’re likely to have a far more restrictive choice of backgrounds and knowledge than on offer elsewhere. Living in a village or small town, far away from a university, makes it harder to find an appropriate local tutor who is not only prepared to make the journey out to do the job but also connects with the child. Online tutoring means that rural children can connect with undergraduates who don’t just act as tutors but as inspirational role models.

Engaging with an online tutoring platform means that young people will be able to find a tutor that fits with them. This is particularly beneficial for those in the countryside, as geography will often dictate what school they attend. The nearest one may be miles away and the practical ability to pick and choose is very much limited. Choosing a tutor may be one of the most crucial decisions a rural parent and child can make when it comes to their education and future success, so they need as much choice as possible. Ensuring that young people in the south-west are no longer left behind should be a top priority for all those involved in their education, whether that’s from the corridors of Westminster or a laptop in student halls.

Florence Milner is UK schools general manager at MyTutor

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