Fife Peer Learning Project

A two year randomised control trial (RCT) of peer tutoring in reading and mathematics

This project created impact through:

  • enhancing achievement of primary school pupils in core skills, reading and mathematics
  • changes to educational policy as the peer tutoring techniques were built into the local authority development plan and promoted by other organisations including the National College for School Leadership
  • changes to practice as all schools within Fife continued the implementation of peer tutoring techniques monitored by the local authority.
  • greater professional and public understanding of peer tutoring techniques and their effectiveness, demonstrated through feedback to dissemination and follow up activities.

Peer tutoring as a technique was relatively under researched with studies focusing in the main on cross age tutoring. No studies could be found of the relative effectiveness of tutoring one or two subjects.

The underpinning research and development work was undertaken in 2006-8 and funded by an ESRC Knowledge Exchange Grant of £370,700 awarded to the Universities of Dundee (2/3) and Durham (1/3) in collaboration with Fife Council and led by Professor Keith Topping (Dundee) and Professor Peter Tymms (Durham).

  • The research was a two year randomised controlled trial (RCT) of peer tutoring for pupils aged nine and twelve years in reading and mathematics in 129 primary schools in Fife.
  • The specific tutoring techniques used with pupils were Paired Reading and Duolg Math.
  • All participating teachers were given initial training and additional support upon request.
  • A theoretical model of peer tutoring, developed by Topping, was used to guide on-going support given to teachers during the project.
  • The effectiveness of the implementation process was an additional aspect of the research. Evaluation of outcomes was a variety of reading and mathematics tests and direct observation of the implementation process.

The research showed that on long-term evaluation, cross- age tutoring was significantly better than regular teaching; but same-age tutoring was not. However on short-term evaluation, pupils did significantly better than control pupils in both years, and cross age and same age were similarly effective. Low socio-economic pupils, lower reading ability pupils and girls did significantly better.

  • Those who gave and received both reading and maths tutoring showed additional gains, suggesting an additive effect.
  • Light tutoring did as well as intensive tutoring suggesting considerable implications for cost-effectiveness. Implementation was good in parts, but some important aspects of technique were rare.
  • Significant gains in self-esteem were seen in same age and cross age groups and for tutors and tutees. But not for controls.
  • In reading, gains were significantly greater for those with mistakes about every two minutes (not more or less) and those who stopped reading to talk about every five-seven minutes.

In policy terms it is evident that cross-age peer tutoring in reading and mathematics is effective in the long term for both tutors and tutees. Schools can be recommended to implement this as part of their curriculum, particularly for low socio-economic status and low ability pupils. Same –age tutoring showed short-term benefits but might be more risky, although easier to implement.

In practice terms, in addition to the above, lightweight tutoring can be recommended. Teachers will wish to manage self-esteem carefully in such projects. The additive effects of reading plus maths tutoring need to be balanced against the curriculum displacement cost of implementing both.

Details of the impact

Enhancing achievement of primary school pupils:

  • During the project, 129 schools, 324 class teachers and 8847 pupils participated.
  • Since the project ended, the schools have implemented whatever variant of the techniques they wish in any part of the school, in the light of the research results.
  • The results have been fed back to schools, principally in the form of a brief newsletter giving the basic details, although the full papers are available on request.
  • Additional workshops and meetings have been held to reinforce the main findings and encourage wider development of the study ideas.

Changes to educational policy and practice:

  • The peer tutoring techniques were built into the local authority development plan.
  • All schools within Fife continued the implementation of peer tutoring techniques monitored by the local authority.
  • The techniques have been built into the Fife Development Plan, so that all schools are required to say how they are continuing to address these issues.
  • Since the project, it is estimated that at least 130 schools, 250 teachers and 6750 pupils participate in each successive year, paying attention to the results and recommendations of the project.
  • One participating teacher described her experiences and cites evidence from her own research project in a blog 

Three further research projects in England have developed from the Fife project (at the time of writing). The first two use adaptations of the same materials. One is a further RCT of peer tutoring in maths involving 487 pupils in 20 schools over 16 weeks led by Thurston and Topping but based at the University of Durham Education Department (funding £65,000 from ESRC).

A further larger RCT has been funded by the Educational Endowment Foundation at the University of Durham to again consider peer tutoring in maths in 90 schools over a period of 3-4 years (funding £750,000), with an emphasis on sustainability and roll-out to further schools in the longer term. Topping is a consultant for this project (the EEF does not fund projects in Scotland).

The National College for School Leadership in England published a paper summarising the research and arranged two webinars between key members of the research team and 140 head teachers interested in developing similar projects. This was followed up by an online discussion with further interested parties..

Greater professional and public understanding:

  • Greater professional and public understanding of peer tutoring techniques and their effectiveness, demonstrated through feedback to dissemination and follow up activities.
  • The project has been reported to the whole of Scotland at a practitioner-oriented Learning and Teaching Scotland conference.
  • It has also been reported at academic conferences, including those of the European Association for Research in Learning and Instruction and the American Educational Research Association. Presentations.

The media have reported the project extensively, focusing on results and recommendations and emphasising cost-effectiveness of the method. In addition to coverage on at least two occasions by the Times Educational Supplement, there has also been coverage across the UK and internationally by the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Sunday Express, the Daily Herald, the Press and Journal, the Scotsman, the Sud-Deutsche Zeitung, Radio 5 live and Scottish Independent Television. Sundry other coverage is evident from a Google search.

A third project on peer coaching to enhance “Physical Activity and Wellbeing in Schools” is to operate in 60 secondary schools from the University of Durham. Funding is £462,746 from ESRC. Topping is chair of the Advisory Group.

References to the research

The “Fife Peer Learning Project” was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Fife Council under a Knowledge Exchange grant managed by the Department of Trade and Industry in the total amount of £370,700 (awarded 2/3 to Dundee and 1/3 to Durham) over two years. The purpose of these KE grants is to transfer existing knowledge into wider implementation in community settings.

Miller, D., Topping, K. J., & Thurston, A. (2010). Peer tutoring in reading: The effects of role and organization on two dimensions of self-esteem. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(3), 417-433.

Topping, K. J., Miller, D., Murray, P., Henderson, S., Fortuna, C., & Conlin, N. (2011). Outcomes in a randomized controlled trial of mathematics tutoring. Educational Research, 53(1), 55-67.

Topping, K. J., Miller, D., Thurston, A., McGavock, K., & Conlin, N. (2011). Peer tutoring in reading in Scotland: Thinking big. Literacy, 45(1), 3-9.

Topping, K. J., Miller, D., Murray, P., & Conlin, N. (2011). Implementation process in peer tutoring of mathematics. Educational Psychology, 31(5), 575-593.

Tymms, P., Merrell, C., Andor, J., Topping, K. J. & Thurston, A. (2011). Improving attainment across a whole district: Peer tutoring in a randomised controlled trial. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 22(3), 265-289.

Topping, K. J., Thurston, A., McGavock, K., & Conlin, N. (2012). Outcomes and process in reading tutoring. Educational Research, 54(3), 239-258.


Fife Peer Learning Project | University of Dundee

Primary schoolchildren can be great tutors – Durham University

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