Photo credit: Tutorfair website

Fighting Educational Inequality One Tutor at a Time — Two Lessons from Tutorfair

Thomas Mackay
Feb 7 · 6 min read

I’m sure you’ve experienced it at some point. The rush of a new idea for a social enterprise. The theme-park exhilaration of realising this idea is going to change the world. The slight ego-boost that comes from humbly (but not too humbly) congratulating yourself on being so very clever.

And, I’m sure you know the feeling that quickly follows afterwards. The snap back to reality, the confusion, the ego-shattering moment when you find out that you aren’t quite so very clever as you thought you were. Someone has already thought of your idea, and done it, and done it better than you ever possibly could have. There’s no shame, we’ve all been there.

But there is something more to take from this sudden twist of fates than the dejection (mixed with secret relief) that you won’t be founding the next social enterprise of the year.

There is an opportunity, like looking at the essay of the student next to you in school and merrily skipping straight to their conclusion, to study the organisation you wanted to start and learn from their successes without actually going through the hassle of doing all the hard work yourself. This I did.

Photo credit: Tutorfair website

Who are Tutorfair?

My idea? To create a private tutoring organisation that would subsidise free tutoring in deprived areas. The organisation that already does this, and better than I ever could have, is Tutorfair. I sat down with CEO and Co-founder Andrew Ground to discuss Tutorfair’s mission, journey, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Tutorfair were set up in 2012 with the mission of helping parents find the best tutors for their children and giving every student fair access to excellent tutors.

The first part of their mission is achieved through an online tutor marketplace which allows users to view tutor profiles, and message and arrange tutor sessions with tutors through the site.

The second part of their mission is achieved through their charity, the Tutorfair Foundation, which is subsidised by part of the profits of Tutorfair. The charity recruits and trains volunteer tutors, and places them in schools.

Photo credit: Tutorfair website

Lesson 1 — Don’t underestimate the power of volunteers

When I was planning my ideal social enterprise, I had very quickly discounted the idea of using volunteers as tutors. I had assumed that it would be impossible to recruit the number of volunteers needed, and that, even if they could be recruited, they wouldn’t have the commitment or expertise needed to achieve meaningful impact. I was wrong.

The other assumption I had made was that, generally in social enterprises, value between the profit-making side of the business and the impact-making side would only flow one way. I was wrong about that too.

Tutorfair have managed to recruit an army of over a thousand volunteers. They don’t rely only on the rhetoric of ‘a good deed being its own reward (true as it may be). In reality, tutors who volunteer (marked with a badge on their profile) benefit from increased popularity with paying customers, free training sessions, and experience working in schools. The training and experience are big selling points for tutors who want to become teachers (especially those applying for the highly competitive Teach First graduate programme) as they are able to use their volunteering experience to support their application.

That said, for most volunteers their motivations are truly selfless; they’re looking to use their leadership and education skills to support those in need, and the most common reason tutors give for volunteering is that they simply love the idea of it. In this case, creating popular voluntary opportunities is far more about removing barriers than it is selling perks and benefits.

The business also benefits from the charitable work of the foundation. Tutorfair receives increased favourable publicity in the press (Exhibit A: this blog post) and the work of the foundation resonates with customers who see the charity as a living statement of the organisation’s credibility and trustworthiness.

Photo credit: Tutorfair website

Lesson 2 — Giving away free tutoring is harder than you’d think

When thinking about the challenges a tutoring social enterprise might face, the last barrier I expected to find was difficulty in delivering impact to their beneficiaries, especially impact that was free, supported by evidence, and otherwise inaccessible. Surely schools would be leaping at the chance to get a professional tutor in to work on a one-to-one basis with their most deprived students?

Schools were leaping at the opportunity but, and I as a former teacher know this all too well, setting up a new initiative in a busy school, between Ofsted inspections, assessment schedules and school improvement plans, on top of the ever increasing workload of teachers, can be an endeavour filled with teething problems. In some cases, getting tutors in front of students appeared far more difficult than it should have been, and Tutorfair has worked hard to overcome these barriers.

To support their army of volunteer tutors, Tutorfair pays liaison officers to work with schools and ensure that the tutoring delivered is as effective and efficient as possible. In addition, Tutorfair found that asking schools to pay a nominal administrative fee to take part in the programme was likely to secure greater commitment and consistency in the school’s work with Tutorfair. As frustrating as it may be to charge for a service you want to deliver for free, it may, ironically, be what you have to do to deliver the greatest impact possible.

However, there may be an even more efficient way to deliver free tuition to students. Tutorfair have trialled a ‘tutor on-demand’ app that allows tutors, with the support of school leaders and classroom teachers, to support students remotely. It’s still in the early days, but it illustrates how the supply chains, communication channels and barriers to scale we assume are permanent features of impact delivery could be overcome through tech solutions.

Photo credit: Tutorfair website

Lessons still to come

Tutorfair have worked hard to overcome the barriers they’ve faced, and there is not a doubt in my mind that they’re making an impact; almost 10,000 students have been supported by Tutorfair in the last 7 years. But there’s still work to be done. Andrew is honest about the challenges. Measuring additionality in a system as complex and diverse as education is a test for all social enterprises, and the variation between schools, tutors, and students makes delivering consistent impact a herculean task. The same can be said of the prospect of rapidly scaling in a sector as highly competitive as tutoring, especially when their competitors don’t have the additional cost of supporting a charity. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see where Tutorfair go next and look forward to learning more lessons from them in the future.

As for me, I’ll continue trying to think of ideas for social enterprises. Eventually one of them might be original!

Tom is a former teacher turned On Purpose Associate. He’s interested in social enterprises tackling educational inequality. If there’s an organisation you’re keen to talk about, he’d love to hear from you. Reach out through Thomas.mackay@onpurpose.london

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