We live in interesting times. Long established norms and values are no longer a good enough dressing to hide the deep wounds of our unpreparedness.

A virus, the smallest living thing (some would argue, not living at all) has revealed glaring inadequacies in our structures, shaking society’s confidence in its perception of security.

We’ve known about infectious disease pandemics for hundreds of years. We’ve known how they transmit for 200 years. There have been 2 previous coronavirus outbreaks in the last 20 years, SARS (10% mortality) and MERS (30% mortality). Fortunately, both were contained. The WHO have been banging on about pandemic preparedness for 50 years. Yet when it happens, a lot of the world is unprepared.

I feel this demonstrates incompetence at best and frankly, is better described as negligence. So, how can we reduce the enormous impact of a future pandemic (which might be caused by a more dangerous organism)?


Looking back from the middle of this pandemic (and I think we are approximately in the middle just now), there are a couple of areas that really stand out.

First and foremost is healthcare – lack of ventilators, CCU beds, lack of prior investment in vaccine development, manufacturing capability for vaccines, temporary/prefabricated hospitals and investment in staff. In my opinion, these omissions are a disgrace in a wealthy country, but are not pertinent to discuss in this space.

Second, there is the enormous economic impact of restrictions on people’s movement. And linked to this is the debate around education. The country was largely unprepared for the impact that closing schools would have on education, student welfare and reducing parent/carer availability for work.

Schools have been faced with an impossible task of containing a highly infectious disease in what are already crowded conditions, often with reduced staff numbers. Even when schools are open they typically have one, or more, year cohorts home learning because of a student testing positive.

Students are often not able to study on line for a whole variety of reasons. In a significant minority of cases students are also at risk of actual harm. Teachers are unable to directly contact students on a regular basis because of lack of time, resources and teachers.

So can tutoring help? The NTP is a short-term project to help students catch up on the lost term earlier this year (although it will almost certainly now be even more needed as a consequence of this second lockdown).

However, we’re a year into the pandemic, 9 months in this country, and the scheme is only just getting started. In the short term I think it will be a very useful scheme and in the medium term it might raise the profile of tutoring and hopefully this will make it more attractive as one of the teaching tools available for our students. And is filling gaps in students’ education the only benefit tutors can bring in this type of crisis?

I don’t think so.

When students are away from home, many things change. They lack the direct contact with teachers and other students. When they ask questions, there are inevitable delays in the responses. There is the lack of immediate consequence for failing to complete tasks.

In addition, the lack of a timetable can lead to a lack of structure in the day. It is a lot to ask of KS3 and KS4 students to have the self-discipline needed to study in this environment. And that is without any additional problems such as lack of ICT, printers and even paper and pens. Many parents try to support their children but often lack familiarity with the subject material, cannot afford the textbooks or simply don’t have time to help.

Tutors could deliver real value in these situations.

  • They can provide fixed points in the week when the student has to be available and ready to learn.
  • They can provide immediate answers to questions.
  • They can set tasks that are time-bound, to be discussed or marked at the next session.
  • The tutor might detect any welfare related problem.
  • The fact the tutor is in contact with the student on a regular basis, and can observe changes, might even deter any third party from harming the student.

For this to work though, the tutoring needs to be coordinated with the school teaching and be seen as part of it. One possibility is that the class teacher could be at the centre of a small team of tutors in the subject, coordinating their activity. Any welfare issues could then be reported by the tutor to the class teacher to take forward.

Another possibility might be that the tutors have the teaching plan (and maybe the lesson plans) and work to these. I tend to favour a hybrid where the tutor uses part of the time to teach to the plan and part to address the particular subject-related issues raised by the student. This allows the student to be involved in the process and the tutor the opportunity to use their particular skills.

But how do you have thousands of tutors on standby ready to drop in when the schools are shut? There is no simple answer to this question.

But perhaps it lies in the huge body of people that have been furloughed. Many of these are people with higher education qualifications. Should we be providing training in tutoring as part of their routine CPD, whatever industry is their principal employment? In effect, we create a pool of reserve tutors.


A part of the job of our leaders from now has to be to ensure that we are prepared for the next pandemic. As citizens we need to hold them to account to do this and in return we need to accept that there will be a cost.

We need to accept that there will be a degree of state control (from central and local government) that we are not used to in our highly capitalist and individualistic society.

But that is the price we will need to pay to be able to contain these infectious diseases in the future.

We have to use our voices to make sure that we are as well prepared for future pandemics as we can afford.