This morning, I had the pleasure of chatting with Mustafaen Kamal, who has founded a new initiative called CloseTheLockdownGap. They are seeking to provide free tuition to all students affected by the latest UK-wide lockdown, and in particular to students who are facing internal assessments and are unable to access the same quality of teaching as many as their peers due to their circumstances. They are reaching out to university students, graduates, teachers, and professors to volunteer 30 minutes of their time upwards.

This interview-write-up is slightly different from our usual interviews. Mustafaen started the initiative four days ago and has already organized a thousand hours’ worth of tuition for students and is looking for help from more Oxford students to boost the number of tutors that he can offer to potential tutees and schools in need. This is a condensed transcript of the chat we had this morning at his project. The full interview is up on our Youtube.

The Oxford Blue: What is the CloseTheLockdownGap and what was your motivation for starting the initiative?

Mustafaen Kamal: Hi, firstly thanks for having us on to talk about CloseTheLockdownGap. The initiative is really simple. It was started as a response to the fact that we are about to enter our third national lockdown. It has been almost a year out of a structured learning environment for many secondary students. Psychologists and clinicians are really worried that this might exacerbate existing inequalities between households in terms of education, but also cognitive development.

Secondary school is a crucial time where students develop how they think critically and how they analyse information. Although financial and health inequalities are being highlighted in a much more extreme and visible way through the pandemic, I believe that the longest-lasting effects of the pandemic might be the educational inequalities exacerbated by the crisis. Private schools are twice as likely to receive online teaching during lockdown and have class sizes that are, on average, four-to-five times smaller in private school “online teaching” classrooms.

Through “CloseTheLockdownGap”, we are trying to compensate for a portion of the growth in the gap in educational opportunities by providing free tuition. Our aim is to arrange 100,000 hours of tuitions for students, and we hope that the expertise of our tutors and the one-to-one learning environment can help make up for some of the time lost in the classroom.

The Oxford Blue: What prompted you personally to start CloseTheLockdownGap? Do you have a background in education?

It began with an introspective look at my opportunities in life. I’ve been very fortunate to have a very stable learning environment and those opportunities had nothing to do with my merit or ability but were instead merely just by happenstance and luck. I wanted to do something to help those who simply weren’t as lucky, so I teamed up with some Oxford students who I studied with last year during my degree.  

We initially just started doing ad hoc tuition, volunteering in local spaces in the subjects that we studied at Oxford. However, we suddenly had a massive uptake and had schools getting in touch with us to ask for help. We wanted to formalise the tuition further through Close the Lockdown Gap.

What did your team do during the first two lockdowns?

To be honest, we just began mainly as a project started by myself, my brother and a few friends. We tried to reach out to anyone in the local area who needed help. We understood the pressures facing students and wanted to help. We didn’t foresee the massive uptakes and the potential to launch a website.

However now, in the UK’s third lockdown with students facing more than a year of disrupted formal structured learning, we felt it was time to ramp up efforts. This is particularly because the cancellation of GCSE and A-Level exams brings increasing importance to internal assessments, which has clear ramifications in terms of the inequities between independent/private schools and state schools.

How can someone sign up to CloseTheLockdownGap?

We tried to make the process as frictionless as possible. If you go to our website, there are segments for tutors and students. If you click on tutors, you go through some personal details, your areas of expertise and what you are willing to teach etc. Some tutors have chosen more broad topics (for example Economics), whereas others have been quite specific (e.g. A-Level Maths Differentiation). All tutors have to go through a security check. If you are a student, then we go through the process with you, and it only takes a one-to-two-week lag before you can begin tutoring. We would prefer tutors and students to be as specific as possible, because that best enables tutors to pair with students effectively. We see our job as a bridge between resources and students. If a student likes a tutor, we are of course happy for them to rearrange subsequent classes through us or to do so independently.

What sort of time commitment are you looking for?

We run on good will, and would appreciate anything from 30 minutes. On our website, you are able to highlight the time that you can commit. It can be anything from one slot of 30 minutes upwards. For example, we have somebody who has pledged a remarkable 78 hours, though we do not expect to ask him to tutor anywhere near that number! 

Where is most of your demand for tuition coming from, and who are most of the tutors so far?

The demand has been enormous already, mostly from schools and teachers it must be said. We are keen for both teachers and students to sign up, but our current priority is reaching out to communities to encourage more students to reach out for help.

Our tutors have ranged from university students to a professor from Harvard who reached out willing to teach GCSE and A-Level Maths, a job he is likely overqualified for!

Which universities have provided the most tutors far?

Oxford so far is leading the way – however there is a selection bias, because I went to Oxford so many of my contacts inevitably also attended the University. LSE is also currently providing us with many tutors.

What are your thoughts on the government’s policy on education during this period?

Personally, I think it is stunning that the UK, as the fifth-biggest economy in the world, is not able to provide a basic service like education to large portions of its population. In a country as wealthy as the UK, it is a sad reflection on our society that we are having to fundraise for the NHS and having to do independent tuitions, because the state lacks the resources to provide effective education and healthcare.

When I spread the CloseTheLockdownGap message, I inevitably get comments from abroad shocked that such an initiative is necessary in the UK. I have many contacts in Pakistan and India, where poor governance and a lack of resources are the norm and one might expect these sorts of problems. However, for a country that is at the forefront of education, with some of the world’s leading universities, to face this sort of inequality is quite startling. The fact that an initiative like ours even exists seems to me quite a damning statement about the political situation in the UK.

Oliver Bater

0liver Bater is an Opinion Editor for the Oxford Blue. He is going into his second year studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at St Edmund Hall. When not at Oxford, he lives in Hong Kong.