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BBC’s Bitesize Daily is not the solution to the Covid crisis

Count von Count, the friendly, maths-loving vampire on Sesame Street might be many children’s maths entry-point, but the character is rarely described as a substitute maths teacher. Video, whether online or on TV, is fundamentally a one-way medium. While there is certainly value in using TV programmes as an educational aid, they are no substitute for a teacher.

What is BBC Bitesize Daily?

Recently, the BBC introduced Bitesize Daily, a fourteen-week schedule of educational programmes which the BBC describes as the “biggest push on education in its history”. The ambitious initiative provides video lessons and interactive quizzes guided by the national media corporation’s 98-years of experience and an extensive list of talent. Stars already acting as celebrity ‘substitute teachers’ include Sir David Attenborough, Danny Dyer and Jodie Whittaker.

The effort is commendable and has naturally been covered extensively by the media, but it is a supplement, not a substitute. A two-way exchange is fundamental to teaching, and without it, students cannot ask questions or clarify complex topics. Education is an interaction between a teacher and a student, and the BBC’s programmes, no matter how excellent, simply cannot offer this.

The mechanisms in place for tracking student understanding face similar limitations. Part of the skill of a good teacher, acquired through years of training and experience, is the ability to identify students who have fallen behind and offer additional support so they can catch up to the class. Bitesize Daily offers a multiple-choice quiz after each day’s teaching, and while it may be able to identify whether the student has retained the information, it offers little recourse or guidance besides ‘try again’ for those who have not understood it.

Bitesize Daily has drawn significant attention, but we must not be distracted: it is critical that students have access to educational solutions which offer genuine, two-way human interaction.

An alternative for supporting students

Some students are more disadvantaged than others, and they are falling behind during the pandemic. Many students come from households where parents are unable to provide them with academic support due to their jobs, childcare, and other responsibilities. The Guardian recently reported that while many students are able to study for around six hours every day during lockdown, disadvantaged students average just four and a half.

Allowing these students to fall behind is a compounding problem: When a student doesn’t understand a core concept, they don’t understand the subsequent lessons built upon it. Students can quickly fall behind, become frustrated, and lose motivation, and while a good teacher can quickly identify and rectify this, the BBC’s Bitesize Daily – although well-intentioned – cannot. Fortunately, there is a solution for remotely providing students with interactive, oversight-driven education while maintaining social distance: online tutoring.

Online tutoring is a cost-effective solution that provides students with the care of a dedicated, qualified professional teacher who can answer their questions and issue corrections, and can tailor lesson plans and assignments to their needs. It is convenient, flexible, and safe, making it ideal for the needs of the UK’s students.

How can we provide online tutoring to disadvantaged students? Prior government programmes offer a precedent. The existing policy intended to bridge the attainment gap, the pupil premium, was introduced in 2011, and it provides schools with a lump sum for each student eligible for free lunches.

In the early years of the scheme, it largely succeeded in closing the attainment gap, but much of the funding went to inhouse teaching and face to face teaching to provide direct support for disadvantaged students, unfortunately the benefits of online tutoring were not fully appreciated and it only used in a limited way, However, over time the focus on attainment was relaxed, and funding often went to supporting students in other ways.

Despite the programme’s loss of focus, its early successes (and the ongoing success of the more narrowly focused Pupil Premium Plus) illustrate the potential for tutoring to support disadvantaged students in catching up to their peers. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a coalition of northern MPs, has already called for a £700 per-student ‘catch-up premium’. This is an excellent start, although we fear that this may not be enough to make up for months of lockdown.

Drop the stigma

We must also ask why online tutoring has not already been adopted at scale as a means of supplementing distance teaching. The answer, in large part, is due to an unfortunate stigma against it.

Online tutoring isn’t a poor substitute for ‘real,’ in-person tutoring; it’s a valid alternative with a different set of benefits and limitations. Removing the need for the tutors to travel, for instance, ensures that students can find a tutor who suits their learning style, regardless of geographic location as quickly as possible. Similarly, lessons can be held at any point throughout the day, ensuring that both teacher and student feel as comfortable and focused as possible.

While teaching remotely, tutors can take advantage of a broad range of engaging digital resources and content, bringing together guidance of teacher-led education and the variety of online learning. In 2018 the Education Endowment Foundation reported that low levels of tutoring could boost struggling pupils’ results in maths by up to three months over a year – that was based on one hour of tuition per week over 12 weeks delivered by graduates.

Remote online tutoring is already used to raise the attainment of looked after children and funded by the Pupil Premium Plus. For example, at TLC Live, our qualified teachers delivered more than 24,000 hours of tuition to this group of children last year and never met one of them face to face. On average, students made a terms worth of progress in key subjects within a course of 10 lessons.

Don’t let students fall behind

We must face the reality that while teachers may soon return to classrooms, we’re still far from returning to the status quo and we must be prepared for an indefinite period of distance and mixed learning. Even if schools were to return to normal, however, the damage has already been done by months of unequal educational support during lockdown. To bridge the gaps in students’ education, we must look to more involved solutions than televised lessons; we need the care and attention of qualified, dedicated teachers.

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