Action Tutoring at 10: Celebrating a Decade of Supporting Pupils from Disadvantaged Backgrounds, with Founder & CEO Susannah Hardyman: Podcast Transcript

Ludo Millar
Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.

Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.

The question is, what will you learn today?

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Ludo Millar 1:15
Hello, and welcome to the next episode, this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. My name is Ludo Millar, the host of this podcast. Welcome back to regular listeners. Welcome to any of you for whom this is your first time listening to the Qualified Tutor Podcast and of course, a huge welcome to today’s guest, Susannah Hardyman. Welcome Susannah, thank you for joining us.

Susannah Hardyman 2:28
Good morning. It’s lovely to be with you. 

Ludo Millar 2:31
In fact, it’s actually a welcome back to Susannah to this podcast. Susannah joined us on the Qualified Tutor Podcast way back in May 2020 as one of our very first guests. We’ve not had an opportunity even in our first 106 episodes to have return guests. So it’s a huge pleasure to welcome Susannah back, sitting comfortably in the Qualified Tutor Podcast guest chair. But since then, since May 2020, Susannah has had a baby, has taken some time away on maternity leave and has returned to lead Action Tutoring anew. Now for those of you who don’t know, Action Tutoring are a fantastic organisation supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK to find confidence in learning and in their careers and their team of volunteer tutors are some of the most committed and professional educators out there. Action Tutoring, whether through Susannah or former interim CEO Jen Fox have also been regular panelists at the Love Tutoring Festival for which we are very grateful and I must say incredibly proud as well. Susannah, thank you for giving up your time to be here. It’s Thursday 31st of March today. What’s giving you reasons to smile today, Susannah?

Susannah Hardyman 3:54
Well, spring is on the way. It’s nearly April. That’s always a good reason to smile, isn’t it? And looking forward to sunnier days, I had my shoes and socks off in the sandpit with my children last weekend, which was a good promise of all that’s to come.

Ludo Millar 4:08
Yeah, exactly. There’s kind of ‘spring has sprung’ metaphor in that. Now, I thought we’d start today with something that I would love to have done more of on this podcast, but it’s very difficult to find these now. I asked Susannah about a week ago whether she could dig up any of her old school reports, I thought that might be an interesting way to start and it turns out Susannah’s mum, this was the perfect moment for her to step up into the spotlight. And I have been told that some school reports have been found. So Susannah, would you mind reading out a couple of school reports of yours from your childhood days?

Susannah Hardyman 4:45
Well, I think that would be highly amusing. Now my mum sent me a vast swathe of school reports so I won’t bore listeners with quite the reams that she was able to find in her study but I thought this one was a particular gem given the job that I’ve gone on to do. This was in year 10, by my form tutor, Mrs Smith, who I can picture vividly, and she wrote, “An excellent report for Susannah who has also put a great deal of effort into her duties as Charities Representative”. I have to say until I read that I had completely forgotten that I ever took on the role of charities. But I thought, given the work I now do that was a particular gem to dig up from the archives.

It probably would have been around 2000, I think. Yeah. So that that was a good one. Do you want another one? Going earlier back. So if that was your turn in 2000, this one was in grade two at the time, we were actually living abroad in North America and Canada. So I would have been about six at this point. And it says, “Susanna has settled into grade two very well. Now, the work provided her with some challenge, but much success. She’s done very well with reading and Maths”. But then it goes on to say, “The written presentation of her work could improve”. And I think this was because I was always in a rush and often still am. And my handwriting to this day is still not perhaps quite as neat as it always could be

Ludo Millar 6:13
That’s because you were too busy thinking about charities. [LAUGHS] Too busy to do handwriting. And perhaps that is wonderful. I think that that first one is really telling, isn’t it? I think, yeah, I think it’s probably time for me to do the same. And maybe for everyone to reach back into their their school report box, if that’s still something that is held. That’s wonderful. Thank you, Susannah. I think perhaps maybe that will then inform this first question which regular listeners will know, we often ask our guests. And it sounds like what you do today has has come from, you know, very deep within you, has really been started from your childhood. But I’d love to know, what is your why?

Susannah Hardyman 7:02
I think it’s a great question to ask people and for everyone to ask themselves really, why do we do what we do? I’ve always had a really deep-seated passion for social justice. And as you’ve alluded to reading that quote, and that school report reminded me that yes, that really did go a very long way back. And in particular, education, children and young people has always been sort of where I feel my heart has always been. I’ve toyed with teaching for a very long time. And as a small child, I loved to play pretend schools and all those kinds of games. So I think something about education and children has always been very deep within me. But there’s passion, there’s interest for social justice, feelings of unfairness around inequality have always been something I’ve taken a real interest in. And I believe we spend hours of our lives at work we do. And for me, I always really felt I’m going to spend literally hours and hours of my precious days at a desk at work, I want it to be for something meaningful.

And that’s why I was always interested in going into the charity sector not to remotely say you can’t make a difference in other ways. But for me that felt like where I would sort of feel most at home, to give my career over to working in the charity sector and particularly to tackling issues around disadvantage. And I think inequality in education is actually not nearly as well known about in the UK. I think the pandemic has shone some spotlight on some of that and the disruption that school closures caused. But I’m really passionate about not just the actual delivery we do at Action Tutoring, but about raising the profile of some of the deep-seated inequalities that go on in the UK around education and how that impacts young people’s life chances.

Ludo Millar 8:56
And Action Tutoring, the brainchild of that thinking, the project that you have been launching yourself into is coming up to 10 years old Susannah, that’s a really hugely impressive moment. I’m sure you’re very, very proud of that. So that 10th anniversary is this coming May. I’d love to know how does this make you feel? What does it mean for Action Tutoring?

Susannah Hardyman 9:27
Well, aside from making me feel really quite old, [LAUGHS] it makes me feel incredibly proud of all we’ve achieved when Action Tutoring started out with a small pilot program with two schools in London and no real funding behind it. I don’t think I had any idea that it could possibly grow into the organisation it is today and that’s been as a result of so many fantastic funders, volunteer tutors, amazing staff that we’ve got on board who’ve come on this journey with me and with the organisation. But it also actually makes me hungry for what we want to achieve in the next decade, and we’ve been going through a process internally as sort of looking back on all that’s been achieved the last 10 years, but also dreaming big for what could be achieved in the next 10 years. And whilst I’m really proud of all that we have achieved, we’ve been running the numbers on this and think, by the end of this year, we’ll have reached somewhere between 25,000-26,000 pupils over the last decade through the work of Action Tutoring. But knowing that there is still so much need out there not least as everybody continues to recover from the pandemic, the effects of school closures, as we look towards some of the government’s ambitions recently shared for 2030, there is still so much that we can can do so much impact we can have as an organisation.

Ludo Millar 10:46
Yeah. So, how did this journey come about? And how did Action Tutoring get to where it is today, what were kind of the market forces in tutoring that allowed volunteer tutoring to become such an important part?

Susannah Hardyman 11:05
Well, it all started for me as a result of some experiences as a private tutor, which I was doing on the side whilst also working in the charity sector. I could see that tutoring was a hugely booming industry, that tutoring was a hugely impactful intervention. That’s why so many people want it, parents are willing to pay for it, people value it. But it really bothered me that at the time, it was very much the preserve of those that could afford it and parents that would push for it. And the more I researched, bearing in mind this was sort of over a decade ago, there was very little out there offering an equivalent for those that couldn’t afford it, there was quite a lot of reading support in the early years of primary. There were mentoring programmes going on into university, but I couldn’t see in the market at the time a sort of volunteer tutor model that would reach those that wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Now, the landscape has changed a lot over the last decade. And we’re really delighted to have been a part of that sort of evolving story. But it really struck me that there must be people out there who would be willing to tutor for free because they love children, they want to make a difference and not always for monetary incentives. In the early days, the first sort of major milestone was really testing that, could we get people to come on board as volunteer tutors? And could we run the programme effectively enough using volunteers that we would still see that impact that you might if you were paying, and in a way that schools would value and that pupils would attend and so on. I’m pleased to say that the results of those early pilots, the first couple of years were really positive on all of those things. And in fact, we were absolutely blown away by the number of people that came forward wanting to volunteer as a tutor. It far exceeded our expectations in the early days and meant that in those first two, three very important years of getting off the ground, we were actually able to grow much quicker than we initially thought that we might be able to.

The other major milestone at that point was getting on board our first funder, the Shine Trust, who supported us with a two-year grant then renewed for a third year, which really gave us some financial stability, to be able to get off the ground in those early days with some very basic things such as websites, flyers, and then eventually I was able to go part-time on it and then eventually bring onboard a staff member so as a result of that funding to enable it to pilot properly and then to begin to grow in scale.

The next big milestone was beginning to work outside of London. It had always been a really big part of my vision, not just to be a London-centric organisation, recognising there is huge need in London. But there’s even more outside of the capital. And a lot of charities can get stuck just working in London or in one local area. And my big vision was to be able to offer offer something that could work much more widely than that. So we piloted outside of London. And that was accelerated by support from another major funder Nesta. And then the next big step was investment from another funder called Impetus. And they, I think, really saw the potential in what we were doing, but wanted to come alongside us to really help us refine the model that we were offering, how we were using the volunteers, the curriculum we had in place, all our data and analysis, and really all of that with the goal of driving the best possible impact for the pupils that we work with. And that gave us really solid foundations for further growth, which was then expanded even further when we launched in primary schools in 2016. And I have to say, when we launched in primaries, we all went ‘Why didn’t we do this in the first place?’. Primary schools are much easier to work with than secondary schools on a number of levels. It’s easier to get to the decision makers, they’re smaller. The pupils at that age tend to be a bit more enthusiastic and engaged and trying to get a 16-year-old that doesn’t really like Maths to turn up to extra sessions. So we continue to work with both primary and secondary schools.

But the move to primary was a great step forward and at that age, we focus on pupils in Year 5 and Year 6, trying to help them to reach at least national staff to set them on a really good footing for secondary school. And then finally, the big next step on the journey has been really the story of the pandemic and the National Tutoring Programme. And obviously, in March 2020, when everything first kicked off huge uncertainty as to what that could mean. But it then became obvious it was presenting a major opportunity for us to get our model online, which we did very rapidly over summer 2020, and then rolled out fully last academic year. So now offering an online and a face to face model and then taking the opportunity of the National Tutoring Programme to expand our work significantly. So we’ve doubled in size last year and growing again this year by about a further 50%.

Ludo Millar 15:46
And there’s clearly an enormous, as you said, appetite for improving the lives of children, not just in London, but around the UK. But how do you recruit new tutors? What makes an Action Tutoring tutor?

Susannah Hardyman 16:06
Great question. So we’re really looking for people who not just have the solid subject knowledge, which is obviously really critical to a tutor, but really actually buy into our mission, our values, what we’re trying to achieve with the cohort that we work with, and have the have the people skills to come alongside those children and young people and support them. We often say, you know, you can have the most amazing PhD in Maths, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can explain it in a way that a Year 6 pupil who’s struggling will understand. So we’re really looking to tee up that triangle of their motivation, their subject knowledge and then their people skills. But the great thing is, there are so many people that have that brilliant combination out there. And through our volunteer model, we attract really three main groups, although not exclusively, and those three groups are (1) university students often who are interested in teaching and come to us wanting to get more experience and exposure to working with children. We get a lot of (2) corporate volunteers and corporate partnerships who often wanting to give back and do meaningful social action. And now we have our online model, they can do that without even leaving their desks. So we can have tutors based in the city connecting with pupils up in Newcastle or Liverpool or even down in Portsmouth. We’ve got programmes in Rotherham now. And so that’s obviously hugely exciting potential to, to connect corporate partners with pupils across the country. And then we have (3) a really growing pool of very faithful retired volunteers, sometimes retired teachers, but sometimes just other retired individuals wanting to make a difference wanting to give back in some way and they’re normally incredibly reliable, committed and often end up tutoring on multiple programmes for us throughout the week.

Ludo Millar 17:55
So whatever your background, being committed and trustworthy, those are the basic tenets really of an Action Tutoring tutor?

Susannah Hardyman 18:05
And we use a very structured tutoring curriculum, it can be tailored to the needs of individual pupils. But that means that volunteer tutors don’t need to spend hours prepping sessions and finding resources because all of that’s provided in our online templates and our workbooks and guidance given around what pupils will need to focus on based on the results of a baseline assessment that we do when they begin the programme.

Ludo Millar 18:28
Yeah, so just talk a little bit more about when you say ‘programme’, does that run kind of concurrently to an academic year, or those kinds of year long programmes? Or do they run a little bit more kind of short-term than that?

Susannah Hardyman 18:41
So ideally, we want to work with pupils for at least 12 to 15 sessions to terms of tutoring, give or take, but it will depend a little bit when they join. Our typical points are the autumn and then January but we do have some that will start at other points around that. Certainly for Year 11 and Year 6s, we want to work with them right up until they sit those exams. And then we often begin working with Year 5 and Year 10 pupils in the summertime with a view of then continuing with them in the autumn as well. But we work with individual schools to hear about the needs of their cohort their pupils what will fit their timetable and so on. And within reason work hard work our offer around that.

Ludo Millar 19:25
I’d love to turn to, I mean you were alluding to it just as well about the past 10 years have been a wonderful 10 years but it’s more now about, you know, what can Action Tutoring achieve in the future. And you pulled on four or five key milestones just a moment ago. I’d love to know: what do you see are going to be some of the milestones over the next 10 years. What are your visions for the future?

Susannah Hardyman 20:00
We’ve been doing a lot of work on this with our board to think about where do we want to be in the next 10 years. And a really big one is that now we’ve got our online model, we want to be able to operate literally anywhere in the country. Until the online model came along, we were working in eight key cities around the UK. So that was obviously fairly good reach already. But now we have the online model, we have the potential to take that further. And we’ve begun piloting that in some new areas. I mentioned Rotherham, and Portsmouth earlier, we’ve also now got programmes in Corby, in Southport. But we would like to get to a point through that online model and how we manage it in terms of our staffing, that we can really offer Action Tutoring to any school that meets our criteria and needs us across the country.

So that’s a really big ambition. And with that online model, we can recruit teachers from anywhere in the country, they don’t need to just be based in our eight main cities, but we can attract anyone that’s interested in being an online tutor from anywhere across the country, we want to once we’ve got that sort of reach model in place, we want to be able to continue growing, recognising that huge need that’s out there. So in three years time, we’d love to be working with about 10,000 pupils a year, take that to 12,000 in about five years’ time, and who knows, in 10 years’ time, a little bit early to put a number to that, but recognising the need and hopefully the offer we have to schools and to young people, we want to continue that growth trajectory.

But alongside that, we believe that understanding our impact, and what’s really working in our model is really, really important. So we’ve got plans to continue doing a number of pieces of work around evaluation and impact measurement to really understand what works in our model, what really makes the difference for young people and then to really embed that. And ultimately, we also hope that that impact can really help to demonstrate on a national scale, how tutoring can really help to close the attainment gap. And to demonstrate that we’re doing that. And we already do a number of pieces of analysis looking at our results against national averages, particularly for Pupil Premium pupils. But we’d love to build on that evidence base to really demonstrate that Action Tutoring and tutoring really can work to close the attainment gap in the UK.

And then the final thing I’d say, which I think is really began to kick in with the National Tutoring Programme is we really want to see tutoring for disadvantaged pupils becoming normalised. And that tutoring is no longer just viewed as the preserve of those that can afford it or parents that will push for it, but that it’s become a much more embedded and normal part of the educational offer in the UK, for all pupils that need it. And there were some encouraging signs, I think in the White Paper published on Monday that that’s also a government agenda, that building on the NTP, they want to see a legacy in the system around it and that tutoring offer remaining for all pupils that need it, regardless of background.

Ludo Millar 22:58
Yeah, it’s been quite a seismic two years, the last two years, I think it’s certainly catapulted tutoring into a more profound national conversation. And just on a kind of very simple level, just the number of times I’ve seen the word tutoring in the national news or, you know, on the main page of Google, you know, wherever it is, is quite a big moment for those of us working in the tutoring industry because it’s been much longer for you than for I, Susannah, but it’s been a, you know, I guess a struggle to try and impress that on parents and families and communities who perhaps previously haven’t seen tutoring as something that’s accessible to them. So you are doing incredible work not only in reaching the students that you reach, but also in showing that tutoring as a concept is something that can be accessed by all.

So for those of us who work in the tutoring industry, we are very grateful to you for that. And, you know, I think the end of this year and beyond, I think there are some really hopeful things to look forward to not least the kind of the next year of the National Tutoring Programme which will hopefully you know, have had another year to be embedded and another year for systems to be kind of streamlined and optimised. So yeah, it’s huge year to come. I’ve got one final question Susannah, which is on a on a personal level: what’s next for Susannah Hardyman?

Susannah Hardyman 24:41
Oh, that’s a big question. There’s lots that excites me at the moment about the tutoring landscape and where we’re going with Action Tutoring, but I think I’m particularly excited by the potential we have to demonstrate the ability of an organisation like Action Tutoring to tackle the attainment gap. I think if we can really sort of concretely demonstrate that at a significant scale, that has really big implications for what could be achieved in the UK education system that really could be game changing. The UK has one of the biggest attainment gaps in the developed world. I personally think it should be a source of national embarrassment. But it’s not nearly as well known about as some of the other sort of social justice issues that go on in the UK. But if we can continue to make a noise about that, and show a way of making a difference, that’s something I sort of feel really, really passionate about. I see that really is a sort of advocacy piece alongside our delivery model. And that’s something our board are very enthusiastic for us to take more of a lead on as an organisation. Now we have a decade of experience and delivery knowledge behind this. But I’m also just hugely excited by the potential we have to offer anywhere in in the country. And I think we’ve seen from some of the NTP data published last year that there are these ‘cold spots’ across the country where it’s harder for schools to access tutoring and to get the kind of support they need. And I think getting to those communities and those areas that perhaps don’t get the kinds of offers that organisations like ours are able to make nearly so often feels like it would be a huge value add to those schools into the sector.

Ludo Millar 26:24
If you are as passionate as Susannah about changing the lives of of disadvantaged children in this country, then actiontutoring.org.uk is your next place to go. You can sign up to become a volunteer with Action Tutoring, you can encourage the schools that you may work with to get in touch to work with those extra tutoring programmes that Susannah was discussing just earlier. There are plenty of ways to get involved. They’ve also got one of the finest marketing teams in the tutoring business, I think they got lovely graphics and blogs and and social media pieces. So do head to Instagram or Twitter or to Facebook and just type in ‘Action Tutoring’. As you can hear, they have a fantastic leader in Susannah and the wonderful team behind them. So Susannah, thank you for coming on this morning to chat to us about the past, the present and the future. I think it’s a pretty momentous time at the moment for Action Tutoring I can imagine. I will let you go away to continue the celebrations for the 10-year anniversary. Thank you so much for joining us.

Susannah Hardyman 27:38
Pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Ludo Millar 27:41
And our next big kind of moment in the calendars is the Love Tutoring Festival 3, which will be taking place week commencing 27th June 2022. So do pop that in your diaries if you enjoyed the previous two festivals, and if you haven’t, head to our website qualifiedtutor.org. But one final time thank you very much. And we will see you next time.

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Ludo Millar

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. Whether you’re a regular listener of this podcast, or you’ve just stumbled across it, join the Qualified Tutor Podcast Group within the Qualified Tutor Community. To stay up to date with our latest news offers workshops and of course, simply to meet other tutors like you, whatever your level is as a tutor, our training courses will be the next step in your professional development. Visit qualified tutor.org/training to find out more about our CPD-Accredited and Ofqual-recognised courses: the first of their kind in the tutoring industry.

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