Mobile tutoring improves the education of Mexico’s poorest children

The education available to thousands of Mexico's poorest school children will be significantly improved thanks to a new mobile tutoring programme designed by experts at the University of Surrey.

Ciro Avitabile, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Surrey, researched and designed the programme in remote schools in Mexico. Working with World Bank and the National Council for Education Development (CONAFE), Mr Avitabile's research found that when training and ongoing support for mobile tutors was increased, the children in poor communities had better reading, writing and maths skills. CONAFE has now adopted the recommendations across all of its programmes in Mexico.

There are currently 120 million children who are out of school worldwide, many of them living in rural areas. Even when they are in school, children in rural areas learn much less than their urban peers. To tackle this problem, in 2009 CONAFE in Mexico started a mobile tutoring programme to boost the quality of education in remote regions. The programme aimed to close the gap between the education received by those in urban areas in comparison to rural areas and was also triggered as part of the 2015 Education for All (EFA) goals for universal access to education (UNESCO 2015).

There are many challenges in CONAFE schools, where teachers are non-professionals who are usually local secondary school graduates receiving very basic training and only a small monthly allowance. The mobile tutors in the initial programme were recent university graduates who were hired to provide educational support services. They were each assigned two communities, where they were expected to spend two weeks per month in each community over two years. They provided pedagogical support to teachers and one-to-one tutoring to the poorest performing students, encouraging parental involvement through home visits.

Initially the programme did not lead to improvements in learning so, in 2014, Mr Avitabile's research team worked with the World Bank to develop and implement a new mobile tutor framework. A pilot study was designed to assess the effectiveness of the new tutoring framework in reducing the drop-out rate of students and improving their reading and mathematics skills. The study, funded through the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF), started in September 2014 and continued through a second school year ending in spring 2016.

The research took place in schools that had never received tutoring before in Chiapas, a notoriously poor region of Mexico and featured two treatment groups and one control group. The first treatment group was implemented in 70 schools, where higher paid tutors were assigned to provide better monitoring to communities where they spoke the same language. The second treatment group was implemented in 60 schools and included all the changes made in the first group, but tutors received two weeks instead of one week of training and also had bi-monthly meetings with other tutors to support them. Another 100 schools served as a control group and didn't receive any tutoring programme.

In the schools where the mobile tutors received extra training and bi-monthly meetings, the progression rate from primary school to lower secondary school rose by 14 per cent, compared to students in the control group. Student reading, mathematics and socio-emotional skills, tested two years after the start of the pilot, also improved compared with the control group. Overall, students in schools that received the standard tutoring programme showed some improvements over the control group but not as substantial as those in schools where tutors had the extra training and peer-to-peer meetings.

Mr Avitabile said: "As a researcher, when you start an impact evaluation, you always hope that your results will contribute to improving people's lives. Nevertheless, I was truly surprised by how quick CONAFE was to implement the recommendations based on our study's conclusions. It is not only about finding policies that work, but those policies have to be cost effective and have the impetus behind them to succeed, otherwise they will never reach the communities who will ultimately get the most benefit from them."

The results of Mr Avitabile's evaluation have led to important changes to the programme, which came into effect in 2017. Training material used in the pilot intervention was adopted throughout the programme, peer-to-peer meetings have been introduced, and training was increased from one week to 10 days. In addition, preference is being given to hiring and assigning mobile tutors who speak local languages.

The results were presented to the World Bank and to other government agencies in Mexico. CONEVAL, an autonomous and highly respected independent evaluation institute in Mexico, agreed on financing a follow-up data collection in order to assess whether the positive effects would continue over time.

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Read Ciro Avitabile's full research blog.

Read more about research at the University of Surrey's School of Economics.

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