An interview with Jacob Kelly, founder of the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative
Margot J. W
Margot J. W • Jul 29

An interview with Jacob Kelly, founder of the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative

by Margot J. W

Jacob Kelly is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford and now works as an executive at Tutor The Nation, a new charity offering free, online tutoring to students in the state sector. Whilst at university, Jacob founded the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, a similar charity which delivered over 50,000 hours of free tutoring. As a result of his work, Jacob has been recognised with an award from the Prime Minister and was a runner up in the 2020 Undergraduate of the Year Awards.

Margot: Hi, thank you so much for coming to chat with us today, Jacob. So it would be great if you could just talk us through the day you created the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative because, if I'm not mistaken, it was created really quickly after the schools closed.

Jacob: Yeah, sure. So it was back in March last year, the same day that the Prime Minister announced that all of the schools were closing. I think he announced it at about 5 p.m., and I quickly realised, because I've been a private tutor myself before, there was gonna be a huge market for private tutoring. But something that I've always been quite conscious of is that there are a lot of pupils who miss out on that tutoring just because they can’t afford it or they can’t access it. So I decided I was going to do something about that.

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Within a couple of hours, I built a website looking for university students who'd provide free tutoring. I think at about 8 p.m. that evening, the website went live, expecting a few people to sign up over the next couple of days. We actually got a few thousand people to sign up within the next 48 hours. The Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative was born, and we very quickly got going, matching them to pupils who needed that tutoring.

Margot: That is amazing. What was it that made you want to create it? Was this something that you'd been thinking about for a while? Or was it a very reactive, "Right, here's a problem, and here's how I'm going to solve it”?

Jacob: I think it was quite reactive because, you know, the situation that we were in was completely unprecedented. It required this new solution. That being said, I think when you're at university, you're reminded quite a lot of how privileged you are to be receiving that education. So I've always been quite mindful of finding ways to spread that education to people who really deserve it. This was just another iteration of being able to do that.

It seemed clear there was a need for it, and there was also a demand from the university student side to be able to help out and to make a difference. So it was really just about marrying those two groups. It felt quite instinctive at the time, but we didn't really anticipate it'd be this successful and have the reach that it eventually did.

Margot: I think it's so wonderful because also, as young people, we're often scapegoats for some of the government's failings. It's wonderful that you were able to create a space where they could show how much they want to help out and what good they want to do for the world. With that in mind, I'd love to hear what the most rewarding part of the initiative has been.

Jacob: This is something I get asked a lot, especially by people who spend a lot of time in the education sector. They often want to know about grade improvements and what percentage of students have improved on average. But actually, I think the most rewarding part, and for me, the most important part is the individual stories we get from students—students who felt more confident in their subjects because the tutor helped them. We've had students receive offers from Oxford and Cambridge as a result of their tutor's guidance.

And for me, it's those individual stories that are the most rewarding because it's nice to know that on a real case-by-case basis, we've really made a difference. I think you can get lost in statistics and numbers, especially when you've delivered quite a lot of tutoring over quite a short time period. So it's great to be able to listen to those individual students and see that it has really made a difference. And most importantly, it is so rewarding to be able to tell the tutors who've helped that they're the ones who've made that difference. 

Margot: It's so great that each individual story could be a case study or advert of its own because each of them is so wonderful and life-changing for both people involved. What has most surprised you since starting the initiative?

Jacob: I think I've touched on it a couple of times, but I think just the growth was pretty crazy. Like I said, I expected initially—because it was just me running the Initiative for the first day or so—it was just going to be me and maybe a couple of my friends delivering tutoring. Maybe I'd go to some of the schools in the local area. Instead, a few thousand people wanted to help.

That was shocking.  We very quickly had to recruit a whole central team, and eventually, we had about 65 people working centrally to run the whole initiative. I've been constantly surprised by the growth over the last year and also by the lengths that people are willing to go to support the pupils. We've got people who've done 50, 70, even over 100 hours of tutoring. It’s really inspiring.

Margot: AbsolutelyIt's really interesting that you mentioned you had this very large central team, and, to the best of my knowledge, that team was almost entirely, if not entirely, student-led. What edge did that give the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative over other tutoring organizations that might be led by adults who haven't been in school or university for a long time?

Jacob: I think the vast majority were university students, with quite a few graduates as well. I think it enabled us to be a lot more responsive in terms of what we were doing. We just moved very quickly compared to a lot of the established players in the space.

Like I said, the website was up in three hours, and I think within about a week or week and a half, maybe two weeks, we started signing on our first pupils. That was because we were willing to move very fast and put in a lot of work initially.

It also meant, on a practical level, that we had access to the networks that we needed to spread the word. All of us had contacts in our respective universities, so we could ask for help.I think it was vital in allowing us to hit the ground running and get going really quickly.

And I think like you mentioned earlier, it's been a really great story that captures people and inspires people:  it is university students stepping up and making this effort.

Margot: Definitely. I remember your post on our college Facebook group, so it’s really great to see how much it's grown since then. I see exactly what you mean about students being able to relate to that pressure because, when I participated in the initiative, I was able to relate directly with the pupil that I was tutoring about how difficult online schooling was and the pressures of it, and the fact they didn’t feel the schools were reacting fast enough. I feel like we didn't necessarily have that support either at university, so the pupil and I  were able to relate in that way.

Do you think that, now that schools have been so affected by the pandemic, tutoring will become an integral part of the UK education system?

Jacob: I think it's looking like that. I think even before coronavirus, tutoring was becoming more common. What I hope now is that, accompanied by that growth, there's also growth in freely accessible tutoring. I think it's crucial that that is available to the students who can't access more traditional paid private tutoring.

Thankfully the government invested money in the National Tutoring Program, which is a really promising start. There are a lot of really cool charities operating in this space, so, hopefully, they will continue to grow and continue to support more students.

I think it's showing that tutoring can have a real positive impact. Even when schools are open and operating normally, it can still add a lot to a student's education. Like you said, the kind of peer-to-peer mentoring side of things is so valuable for pupils. I really hope that we can find a way to properly embed tutoring into the education system as we, hopefully, move out of the pandemic and start to recover.

Margot: It really shows each student that they're also valued as an individual, not just a statistic or one of many grades. I think it's really wonderful. You're now working for Tutor The Nation, so I would love to hear a little bit about your role there and what the organization is focused on.

Jacob: Sure. Tutor The Nation is the spiritual successor of CTI. It takes what we did at CTI and turns it into a more robust, long-term offering. It’s backed by better funding and better logistics to make sure that it can last for years rather than just months. I'm an executive at Tutor The Nation now, and I'm working full time on growing the charity.

We have big plans for Tutor The Nation. We think it can be something that really changes the way volunteering is seen at university, where it becomes even more of a natural thing for university students to do.

What we've been telling people is it only takes an hour or so a week, and you can genuinely change a young person's life, which, at least to me, is a no-brainer. We're trying to sell that to as many people as possible—that it's so simple and so rewarding to get involved and help out. We're just trying to find as many university students as possible who agree with that and want to get involved.

Margot: One of my friends tutored for us in our organization, and she tutors someone on a volunteer basis who at first didn't want to go to university. A month later, they're at the Manchester University open day together. Things like that are so heartwarming. It's not just something that can grow, it's something that should grow, in my opinion. To finish off, what's next for you, and what's next for Tutor The Nation? Is there anything else that you have in mind?

Jacob: Yes, at the moment, we've got our sights on growing nationally because we've had a really successful pilot at a few schools in Bolton, and we're starting to expand our offering to new schools. The main thing at the moment is finding as many tutors as possible at universities all across the country.

I think we have 52 universities represented in our volunteer base so far. Trying to increase that number as much as we can over the next couple of years is going to be my primary focus.

Margot: I really hope it all goes well for you. Thank you so much for today.

Jacob: Thank you very much.

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