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Q&A with Tom Hooper, Founder & CEO of Third Space Learning




12 minutes

We recently caught up with Tom Hooper, Founder and CEO of Third Space Learning.

In this Q&A, we talk all things edtech, including the educational attainment gap, the ongoing impact of the pandemic, plus some upcoming milestones for the team. 

We know you're coming up to a big milestone - how does it feel to have supported almost 100,000 pupils on their education journey?  

Thank you. It feels incredible! I know the whole team feels really proud to have played the part we’ve played in supporting these pupils, especially now that opportunities for children to practise their maths and develop their confidence are even more valuable than ever before. I look back to 2013 when we were working with a handful of schools and pupils, and it feels a bit surreal to know that close to 100,000 pupils have now been supported with online one to one maths tuition from our tutors! 

Reaching these milestones - we delivered our 1,000,000th session back in May - has a positive impact on our schools and pupils too. The more pupils we support, the more sessions we deliver, and the more tutors we train, the more data we have to explore exactly what works best. We’re constantly working behind the scenes to analyse our data and make improvements in the support we offer to our schools and pupils. 


With the pandemic causing an estimated learning loss of between two and seven months, clearly this support is more crucial than ever. Could you explain this educational attainment gap in more detail?  

While the attainment gap existed long before the pandemic, it’s now wider than ever. The attainment gap itself refers to the difference in achievement between different groups of pupils. Traditionally, disadvantaged children have fewer opportunities to practise their skills, and are less likely to receive additional support outside of the classroom, which means they’re less likely to do well academically at school. Over the last ten years or so, there’s been a big push to narrow this gap. Part of this was introducing the Pupil Premium: per-pupil funding for schools to support those pupils who might not otherwise have the same opportunities as their peers. This is traditionally how most schools have funded the one to one lessons from Third Space Learning. 

When the pandemic hit, much of that work that was done to narrow the gap was reversed. With schools partially closed, it was the pupils with access to a computer, the space at home to work, and parents who were equipped and able to support their children at home who were best able to ‘keep up’. So now we’re in this situation where - even though all pupils have experienced some level of learning loss - it is those disadvantaged pupils who’ve been hit the hardest and now need an even more sustained and targeted effort to catch up. 


Why is it that maths has been hit the hardest?  

When it comes to maths, one of the biggest ways to help raise attainment is to overcome something called ‘maths anxiety’. This is a phenomenon that is unique to maths, and refers to that feeling of ‘I can’t do this so I’m going to just switch off’ which so often occurs in maths - in both children and adults. To help this, pupils need plenty of opportunities to practise their maths in a secure environment where they feel supported, can make mistakes without fear of failure and have somebody there to reassure and encourage them. With normal classroom teaching disrupted, many pupils simply didn’t have these opportunities, and as a result their confidence took a huge hit and they’re now struggling to re-engage. 

Maths is also taught and learnt in ‘building blocks’. In general, you need to learn one topic before you can move onto the next. It’s not like history or English where you can learn about one time period or study one book in isolation. This means that when pupils miss out on learning - or miss out on months of learning as a result of the pandemic - they just fall further and further behind. 


What are the biggest challenges for schools trying to tackle this learning gap?   

Every pupil will have had a different experience during the pandemic and, as a result, every pupil now has slightly different needs. Some pupils might have neglected a whole topic entirely, some might need support with a particular skill, and others might have kept up well at home but only at a surface level, and not really understood the underlying mathematical concepts behind the questions they’re answering. 

This means schools not only need to provide additional support, they need to understand who needs most support and what support they need. It’s a huge challenge on top of their already stretched workloads and the demands teachers are under. 

On top of this, you can’t discount the fact that pupils haven’t had a ‘normal’ year of learning for two years. A Year 6 pupil’s last ‘normal’ year of learning was Year 3! Lots of them just haven’t had enough chances to build up relatively simple things like concentration or stamina that might otherwise be taken for granted. This is really tough for teachers to navigate, and impacts on their ability to just ‘get on with’ the teaching, as they’re having to take longer to do the things they normally would. 

From your experience, which pupils are the most in need of support?  

Our schools often tell us that it’s the pupils who are almost there, they’re just lacking the confidence to explore maths strategies or apply their skills to the types of questions they’re facing.  

Thinking specifically about post-pandemic support, it’s definitely those pupils who weren’t able to keep the maths momentum going throughout school closures. More often that not, those pupils are the ones from disadvantaged backgrounds. The government is now providing schools with more funding to help these pupils catch up, so it’s wonderful to see more schools than ever now able to implement targeted and sustained efforts for their disadvantaged pupils. 


How can parents or caregivers best help any children that are particularly struggling?   

One of the best things to do is to be aware of their own behaviour and how they talk about maths. Hearing their parents say things like ‘I’m not a maths person’ or ‘I’m just no good at maths’ really has an effect on children, especially girls. 

The other really great thing to do is encourage children to talk about maths. This helps to develop their verbal fluency and is a really important part of learning maths. Giving children the chance to explain their working out or talk through the steps they’re taking to solve a maths problem is really invaluable, and helps to make sure they’ve really understood the underlying maths and not just learnt a quick trick to find the answer. That’s one of the reasons our online tuition is so popular, because it gives pupils opportunities to speak about maths in a safe, secure and engaging environment with tutors that are trained to encourage them to talk and to put them at the centre of their learning. 


How can innovative tutoring models support children who need assistance?  

When we think about children who need additional maths support, we have to think about what’s stopping them from receiving it. That comes down to three things; cost, access and scale. 

For many children, and indeed for many schools, tuition is simply too expensive and that’s why it’s often the preserve of those fortunate enough to afford it. There’s also just not enough maths specialists available to support the millions of disadvantaged pupils in the UK. We knew we wanted to help solve these problems when we started out. By recruiting and training tutors in countries with large populations of highly-educated, English speaking maths and STEM graduates and undergraduates, we can open up access for schools and pupils at a much more affordable price. 


How important is the part technology plays in helping bridge this learning gap?  

Clearly, the best support a child can receive is through their class teacher, and technology is never going to replace that - nor do we want it to! What technology can do, however, is provide teachers with more ways to support their pupils that are completely personalised to individual knowledge gaps, in a way that reduces their workload and gives them more time to do what they do best: teach! 

Each of our pupils starts with an online initial assessment, and we’ve developed the technology to ensure that this assessment pinpoints exactly where each pupil is struggling and identify exactly which of our lessons can be used to plug these knowledge gaps. It also means teachers can quickly and easily plan and manage their sessions, and see how their pupils are getting on, all with minimal impact on their workload. 


Have you got anything exciting coming up in the pipeline that you can share with us? 

Having spent 7 years supporting primary schools, we’re really excited to have recently expanded into secondary schools. We started off with a small group of pilot schools and learnt a huge amount about the kind of support these students need and how this is different to what we’ve been used to at primary. We’ve built out a dedicated secondary team who’ve developed an excellent programme of tuition and supplementary resources, and I’m really excited to see what they build next.  

Thank you, Tom! You can learn more about Third Space Learning and their amazing work, here

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