Improving achievement across a whole district with peer tutoring

Allen Thurston, Peter Tymms, Christine Merrell, and Nora Conlin consider lessons learned from a project designed to improve achievement across a whole district in the UK

GOVERNMENT ATTEMPTS TO RAISE achievement through policy initiatives are often disappointing. Evidence suggests that it is hard for large-scale, top-down reform to improve student achievement. For example, despite numerous reforms in English elementary schools stemming from the introduction of the Education Reform Act in 1988-2007, including national literacy and numeracy strategies, there has been virtually no improvement in reading standards and only a small improvement in math.

What we know
● Cross-age peer tutoring was effective at raising achievement in reading and mathematics.
● Same-age tutoring, while easier to organize, was not effective.
● It is possible to work with schools on a wide basis on a clustered randomized controlled trial.

Ways to achieve systematic school reform at a district level have been well researched, and four main issues appear to influence effectiveness:

  • Schools have to “buy into” school reform;
  • The organizational constructs and structures between the district and what is required to support schools should be aligned and interconnected;
  • Capacity building needs to be seen as a core function by district managers; and
  • There needs to be understanding of the “defined autonomy” between the district’s expectations and each school’s unique circumstances.

The Fife Peer Tutoring Project has established a model which might be used to further investigate the wide-scale systematic use of school reform.

Peer tutoring

Peer tutoring involves children helping other children learn. Students work together in pairs with one child as the tutor and another as the tutee. It is important that peer tutoring is set up so that the tutor benefits, as well as the tutee. Previous research has shown the technique to be an effective approach to learning and teaching in elementary schools, with the most positive effects reported for younger, urban, low-income, and ethnic minority students. Peer tutoring was cited as providing high impact for low cost in a recent Sutton Trust report on student premiums (see further reading).

The Fife Peer Tutoring Project

In the Fife Peer Tutoring Project, a peer tutoring intervention was evaluated over a two-year period in 129 elementary schools in one Scottish local education authority (school district). The intervention successfully raised achievement in reading and mathematics across the whole district.

The project investigated the following key questions:

  • Which works best in practice, same-age or cross-age peer tutoring?
  • Is an intensive or a lighter peer tutoring approach most effective?
  • Is it more beneficial for students to participate in only reading or mathematics peer tutoring, or for them to participate in both?

Design of the study

Schools were either allocated to cross- or same-age tutoring; light or intensive tutoring; math, reading, or math and reading in a “clustered randomized controlled trial.” Nearly 9,000 8–10 year-old students were involved. Interventions were implemented for a 15-week period per year, for two consecutive years.

Pairs of children were matched on the basis of previous reading or mathematics achievement (depending on the subject being tutored). In cross-age conditions, students within classes were ordered from highest to lowest in reading/mathematics achievement. The top-achieving tutor in the older class tutored the top-achieving tutee in the younger class, and so on. In the same-age conditions, classes were ordered from highest to lowest achievement in reading/ mathematics. All students above the midpoint became tutors, all below became tutees. The top-achieving tutor tutored the top-achieving tutee, and so on.

In reading, the Paired Reading technique involved switching between the tutor and tutee reading together and the tutee reading alone. Books chosen by pairs had to be above the independent readability level of the tutee, but below that of the tutor and appropriate to their interests. This facilitated the tutor helping the tutee through the error correction process. The tutor and tutee started by reading together. The tutee signaled to read alone. Upon an error, the tutor waited 4 to 5 seconds and if the tutee did not self-correct, was corrected by the tutor. The tutee repeated the error word correctly and the pair read together again until the tutee signaled to read alone. The tutee read alone until the next error.

In math, the intervention Duolog Mathematics involved discussion between tutor and tutee to help solve math problems. First pairs read the problem together, then the tutor would contextualize it for the tutee. The tutor would question the tutee as to how they would approach solving the problem. The tutee talked out loud as they solved the problem. Tutor and tutee checked answers, and summarized the nature of learning on that problem. Finally, the tutor generalized that learning to related but new contexts.

Teachers attended two professional development (PD) sessions per year. These provided overviews and demonstrations of the techniques and research design. A manual and videos to support teachers were provided for each school. Teachers were supported in developing forward plans with other teachers to implement the project. More than 250 teachers were trained in the peer tutoring techniques during the two years.

Prior to the project, and for its duration, the district had an assessment system in place (the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) project) provided by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University that enabled the progress of students to be monitored. The assessments included group written tests of mathematics and reading.

Results and conclusions

The analyses produced a clear conclusion. Cross-age peer tutoring stood out as positively enhancing cognitive achievement for both reading and mathematics in two differently aged cohorts, for both tutors and tutees. It suggests that the approach is robust against the vagaries of implementation. Although the impact was modest, this might be improved through attention to detail, for example, in extending or improving PD. No other interventions had as great an impact on reading or math, and there was no real benefit to using reading and math together.

In terms of district-wide school reform in the UK, the Fife Peer Tutoring Project provided a number of important lessons. Many of these relate to the process of school reform. A feature of the project was the ability of the project team to engage with the district. The district was a partner in the research/school reform process, and PD days were coordinated and funded in partnership with the district, with the director of education in the district introducing each event. Also important was the project team’s wider engagement with principals, teachers, and parents as partners in the school reform process. Principals included the process in their individual school development plans and prioritized teacher attendance at the PD events. PD events also facilitated the establishment and development of networks of teachers, who met to discuss related issues. Our perception is that the high-level involvement of the district and the professional development of teachers gave a collective purpose and shared conceptualization regarding the aims and purposes of the project.

A follow-up to the Fife project, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, is being led by Allen Thurston, Christine Merrell, and Andy Wiggins from Durham University, and will attempt to scale-up peer tutoring to work in four districts in a randomized controlled trial in 90 schools taking place over the next four years. The disparate nature of district context and wide variety of district-level support should provide fresh challenges to gauge the ability of peer tutoring to promote school reform at scale-up.

About the authors

At the time of writing this article, Allen Thurston was a reader at the School of Education, Durham University. He is now Director of the Centre for Effective Education at Queen’s University. His research interests are peer tutoring, cooperative learning, science and mathematics education, learning with information and communications technology, elementary/primary education, and social inclusion in respect of visual impairment. He is a fellow of the Wolfson Research Institute and a member of the Scottish Parliament Cross-party Standing Committee on Visual Impairment (

Peter Tymms is a professor of education and head of the School of Education, Durham University. His research interests are monitoring, assessment, peer learning, ADHD, Rasch measurement, and research methodology (

Christine Merrell is the director of research at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University. Her research interests are assessment development and monitoring the progress of children through primary school (christine.merrell@cem.dur.

Nora Conlin is an education officer at Fife Council. Her interests include school management and school improvement, and peer learning (


The research project was supported by a grant from the Economic & Social Research Council, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme. Keith Topping and David Miller from the University of Dundee were co-investigators on the grant.

Further reading

Tymms P et al (2011), Improving Attainment Across a Whole District: School Reform Through Peer Tutoring in a Randomized Controlled Trial. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 22(3): 265–289.

Higgins S, Kokotsaki D, and Coe R (2011), Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: Summary for Schools Spending the Pupil Premium. Sutton Trust/Durham University: Durham, UK. research/toolkit-of-strategies-to-improvelearning/


February 2012