How EdTech Can Fill UK Classrooms With Global Maths Tutors

10/06/2016 10:25 | Updated 10 June 2016

Another day, another article on the UK's acute teacher shortage. This morning, the BBC has been covering a report by the Public Accounts' Committee that claims that despite the fact that the Department for Education (DFE) has repeatedly missed teacher-training targets, "the government has no sense of urgency in making sure schools have enough teachers".

This problem is most acute when it comes to teaching STEM subjects. Year-after-year the quota for maths teachers - essential for teaching one of the core aspects of the curriculum - has been missed. The most recent TES Global Recruitment Index found that maths was one of the two most difficult subjects to recruit for.

With no apparent sense of urgency coming from government, others are having to step in to find innovative solutions. An extremely impressive initiative is Third Space Learning, which uses technology to allow primary - and now secondary - pupils to have one-to-one maths tuition with a global workforce of tutors.

As I have noted previously, even at a time of severe teacher shortages, a side-effect of the Home Office's attempt to crack down on immigration has been the shutting out of many teachers from overseas, who would previously have come on Tier 2 visas. Third Space's solution is to unlock the power of the global workforce through the use of technology.

While he strongly emphasises that he is easing the load on teachers, providing them with extra capacity rather than trying to substitute them, Third Space founder Tom Hooper has trained large numbers of maths tutors in India and Sri Lanka, which "at the click of a button" can be made accessible to UK pupils who need support the most. A pupil will then be assigned a tutor for the rest of the term, and will often have regular interactions with them.

Using a headset, and looking at exercises on the screen - from 270 set lessons - pupils never actually see the maths tutor. When the initiative first started, this was due to technical reasons, but Hooper has found that just hearing their voice helps to focus pupils: "students feel less self-conscious and are more happy to discuss and ask questions." This provides pupils with personalised attention that, with the best will in the world, a maths teacher with 30 pupils to engage with would not be able to deliver.

Hooper established Third Space in 2012, having previously been the brain-child of Brightspark - a tutor portal that parents, pupils and schools could access and attracted so much attention it was acquired by TSL Education (now TES Global) within just five months of its launch. He launched Third Space as a very focused proposition - to deliver supplementary maths tuition to primary school pupils. A niche proposition? Well, there are 21,000 primary schools in the UK and, as Hooper rightly notes, "you would be hard pushed to find a school that couldn't find pupils who need additional maths support".

Hooper gained the idea from travelling extensively in India, and being struck by how "people were extremely intelligent and hardworking with a huge passion for STEM and education". Having gained an understanding of how the rise of digital technology can allow "the ability to create something big and for many with little means", Hooper decided to be "wilfully optimistic" and set up an office in India, while developing technology to allow Indian tutors to straightforwardly connect with pupils in UK classrooms.

He now employs 230 tutors, based in both India and Sri Lanka, who are trained by a team of UK maths teachers who moved over especially. These now teach almost 4,000 pupils a week, and the service is growing rapidly. The tuition is reaching the pupils that need it the most: 51% of pupils receiving this personalised tuition are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 89% are at risk of not making the required progress.

Not only does Hooper connect UK pupils with a global army of maths tutors, but he also records every session, which is shared with the UCL Knowledge Lab, which provides rich insights into the efficacy of lessons - allowing tutors to receive personalised feedback and professional development.

"You have a macro problem where you have a decline in the number of people being teachers - the government is spending more and more but not resolving the shortage of maths teachers," says Hooper. "As an education system you have to look at new ideas. And there is a global supply of teachers. A whole world of people out there."

While tightening visa restrictions and loud scaremongering about immigration may deter some overseas teachers from physically coming to the UK, Hooper has - at least - found a way of using tech to tap into this rich source of talent to help reduce the workload of stretched UK teachers and, most importantly, to help drive up standards of education for the next generation.