As we approach the election-how has the Coalition done on its education policy commitments?

Maybe its too early to tell?

This report, sponsored by the University of Manchester, LSE, and CASE seeks to give an overview of the Coalitions education policies and their  effects on outcomes.

It notes that ‘there are elements of continuity with the policies of the previous government, in the emphasis on school choice and diversity, accountability through league tables, a widening range of providers, and a simplified funding regime’ but that ‘the scale of structural reform is significantly different from anything Labour imagined, and the changes to curriculum and assessment mark a clear departure from the direction of policy in the latter part of the Labour period’


In May 2010, David Cameron and Nick Clegg committed the Coalition to sweeping school reforms, promising “a breaking open of the state monopoly”.

They also pledged to protect school spending and give extra money to the education of the poorest pupils. So the verdict?

 The Coalition did protect school spending. Total expenditure rose from £46.1bn in 2009/10 to £46.6bn in 2013/14 (in real terms in 2009/10 prices) – a rise of one per cent. This allowed pupil-teacher and pupil-adult ratios to be maintained. But capital spending fell by 57 per cent.

 The Pupil Premium has directed more money to schools with poor intakes. Secondary schools with the highest proportions of pupils from low income families gained an extra 4.3 per cent funding in 2012/13 than in 2009/10, while the least deprived schools lost 2.5 per cent. All types of primary schools gained, especially the most deprived.

 The Coalition has broken up local authority oversight of the state school system. By 2014, 57 per cent of secondary schools and one in ten primary schools were Academies.

Some might think the last success is, in fact, a failure. But local authorities, given their patchy record on school improvement  before, will be hard pressed to regain this role in any future administration.


 There is no clear evidence to date that Academies are either better or worse than the schools they replaced. Ways of managing the new fragmented system are still evolving and will be a key challenge for the next government.

The report states ‘The overall picture given by inspection data is that the proportion of outstanding and good schools has increased, but for secondary schools there has also been an increase in the proportion of inadequate schools. However, it is hard to determine whether these trends reflect real changes in the quality of schools or changes in the inspection criteria or are just features of the sample of schools inspected each year.’


‘Whether or not a more autonomous school system has the potential to improve quality and outcomes, putting in place the mechanisms for its effective management seem certain to be a principal concern of any new government elected in May 2015.’

 Other reforms have included changes to curriculum and assessment to make them more demanding. Teacher training has been reformed to emphasise school-led, ‘on-the-job’ training.

 Results from primary school testing and GCSE exams continued to rise until 2013.

However in 2014 GCSE attainment fell, and socio-economic gaps opened up for lower attainers.

The report, crucially, suggests that it  is really is too early to tell whether the coalition’s policies have been successful. It states that we are …. ‘without any clear answers about whether the government’s changes have been better or will be better for children’s outcomes, nor even whether they have delivered on the Coalition’s goals of more robust standards, better teaching, and a system in which poorer students get to go to better schools. It is simply too early to tell the effect of system change which has not yet in any case bedded down, while reforms to curriculum and assessment have not yet fully been implemented. In this situation of rapid change and data timelags, learning from historical and international comparisons, from qualitative studies, and from practice, will be as important in policy-making as scrutinising the quantitative evidence in the UK to date.’

But this exposes a fundamental flaw in any accountability regime. There will always be a lag, before interventions show, or indeed don’t show, their effects. By which time the politicians responsible have moved on. And so cant be held to account (or am I missing something?)

This report concludes:

‘The next government will inherit a school system in flux and key issues of equity and achievement still unresolved’

Really? Doesnt that pretty much  summarise the end of term reports for every government over the last two generations.

Will we now perform better in the next  Pisa tables  one wonders? Almost certainly not, as ,although our politicians use Pisa as a benchmark, they have  done nothing much to improve the problem solving skills  of  our pupils  something that  the Pisa  tests aim to  measure .

Social Policy in a Cold Climate

Working Paper 13 – The Coalition’s Record on Schools: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015 Ruth Lupton and Stephanie Thomson

University of Manchester, CASE  and LSE


As the size of a class or teaching group gets smaller it has been suggested that the range of approaches a teacher can employ and the amount of attention each student will achieve will increase.  So, intuitively, it seems obvious that reducing the number of pupils in a class will improve the quality of teaching and learning, for example by increasing the amount of high quality feedback or one-to-one attention learners receive

But Professor John Hattie revealed in his book “Visible Learning” that class size doesn’t  really matter that much .  Or rather, his research  showed that on a list of factors that affect student learning class size mattered the least, which is not quite the same as saying it doesn’t matter.

The average size of a class taught by one teacher on the census day in January 2014 was 27.4. Overall in England, there are more than 58,000 Key Stage 1 classes (pupils aged five to seven) of which almost 3,000 had at least 31 pupils in them about 12 months ago. So, although the number of students in classes with more than 30 children has trebled, we’re still only talking about one in 20 classes across the country.

As Professor Justin Dillon points out ‘One of the reasons why class sizes have risen is that there are more primary-aged children now. Since 2010, the number of Key Stage 1 pupils has risen by 11.2%, but the number of classes has only grown by 8.1%. The coalition government changed the rules on admissions – meaning, for example, that schools have to accept pupils whose parents are in the armed forces or who move into an area where there are no surplus places.’

In the US, a team of researchers randomly allocated pupils and teachers to one of three types of class within the same school. The three models were: “small” classes, which had 13-17 pupils; “regular” classes (22-25 pupils) with just one teacher; and “regular” classes which had a teacher and a full-time teaching assistant. The project involved more than 7,000 pupils in nearly 80 schools. The pupils were followed through four years of schooling, from kindergarten (aged five) to third grade (aged eight). Pupils in small classes performed significantly better than pupils in regular classes and gains were still evident after grade 4, when pupils returned to normal class sizes

The Education Endowment Foundation, here, says of class size ‘ overall the evidence does not show particularly large or clear effects, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15.’ It continues: ‘The key issue appears to be whether the reduction is large enough to permit the teacher to change their teaching approach when working with a smaller class and whether, as a result, the pupils change their learning behaviours. If no change occurs then, perhaps unsurprisingly, learning is unlikely to improve. When a change in teaching approach does accompany a class size reduction (which appears hard to achieve until classes are smaller than about 20) then benefits on attainment can be identified’

Surveying studies on class size in the US , the author Malcolm Gladwell observed that although really big classes are a problem, there is a happy medium, and smaller classes don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes. This, he explains, is because teachers don’t usually adjust their teaching style to smaller class sizes; instead, they just work less. So, the “disadvantage” of moderately big classes isn’t one after all.

When Malcolm Gladwell talked with teachers about class size he found there was general agreement that large class sizes can impair learning. However, he also discovered that teachers believe that the same is true about small class sizes. Teachers agreed that when classes became too small the group dynamics in a class became difficult, and individual students were more easily able to dominate the group and disrupt learning.

Based on this, Gladwell suggests that the relationship between class size and achievement is actually not linear (as class size goes down learning goes up), but is best represented by an inverted U curve. As class size is reduced, learning improves until the optimum class size is reached. However if class size drops below the optimum learning declines.

Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD, says that  it’s a myth that small classes raise standards. He argues that “everywhere, teachers, parents and policy makers favour small classes as the key to better and more personalised education.” In contrast, he argues, high performing education systems invest in better teachers and high performing countries (many in East Asia) have large classes – so the size of a school class can’t be important. But PISA studies are not dedicated studies of the impact of class size but secondary analyses of data collected by others at just one point in time.

In England, Peter Blatchford directed the Class Size and Pupil Adult Ratio project which, instead of setting up an experiment, simply studied what went on in normal classrooms. Blatchford and his team followed more than 10,000 pupils in more than 300 schools. The pupils were tracked from when they entered school aged four to five-years-old, until the end of primary school, aged 11.

In this study Class size made a difference – children did better in smaller classes in both numeracy and literacy during their first year in school. The effect was greater for the pupils who started school with lower attainment. At the end of the second year in school, the effect was still evident in literacy attainment but not numeracy. Yet by the end of the third year the effects were far less evident in either numeracy or literacy. So, the evidence suggests that smaller classes benefit pupils in their first years in primary school but the effect seems to disappear as students get older

 Blatchford says in a blog ‘ What is needed to address the causal effect of class size are dedicated studies with strong research designs, which deal with the problem of potentially confounding factors, like pupil and teacher characteristics. Two main studies do this, each using a different approach: the experimental STAR project from the USA (pdf), and a large scale longitudinal study in the UK (CSPAR [pdf]). These studies show that smaller classes do have a positive effect on pupil progress especially in the first 2 or 3 years of schooling. Recent French research has found similar effects.’

To reduce class sizes you have to employ more good teachers and reduce the pupil teacher ratio. This all has a very significant impact on educational resourcing-so  it is vital that we are clear about the reliability of the evidence on the effect of class size.

What is clear is that high-quality teaching is the single most important school-based factor determining how well pupils achieve. Class size certainly, at the extremes, must have an effect. Ask any teacher and they will tell you its easier to teach a class of 15 than a class of 35.   But it can also be a nightmare teaching a class of  8  demotivated, disruptive pupils and a joy teaching 40 pupils   who really want to learn.

But reducing class sizes is expensive. And so the question is ,are there  other interventions that are more cost effective, having a greater effect on student outcomes. The answer to that has to be yes. (Hattie et al) Another interesting question is, what would be the effects on student outcomes if   the best teachers taught , larger classes and the weakest teachers ,progressively, the  smaller ones?

A final word to Blatchford ‘:  I think the most important educational questions are about how to adapt teaching to make the most of having fewer (or more) pupils in a class. It amazes me that there is next to no research which evaluates the benefits of class size changes along with specified changes to teaching, for example, the introduction of collaborative group work, which might well benefit from smaller classes.’

Look out for the work Blatchford is doing with the Leverhulme Trust, on class size


Hard hitting report from Lords points to critical digital skills shortage

Current Careers guidance ‘poor and outdated’


The UK is at a tipping point: The country is not addressing its significant digital skills shortage and an incoming Government urgently needs to resolve this, a Lords report warns this week. The Digital Skills Committee ,also in its report , highlights the impact of changing technology on the labour market, with an estimated 35% of UK jobs at risk of being automated over the next 20 years.

The report, entitled “Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future”, urges the incoming Government to seize the opportunity to secure the UK’s place as a global digital leader by, among other things:

making digital literacy a core subject at school, alongside English and Maths;

viewing the internet as important as a utility, accessible to all; and

putting a single ‘Digital Agenda’ at the heart of Government.

The report also noted that there are certain sectors of society, and UK regions, falling behind at great cost to the economy; and that industry has a vital role to play in developing the right skills in the workplace, in further and higher education, and in schools.

The report says ‘It is evident that there are three major players—the Government, industry, and the education system—who must act together.’ But ‘ Currently the major players are not in synergy…’ and ..  ‘the UK is structurally weak and has not yet created the right human capital, infrastructure and business environment to support a changing society’ and ‘It was clear from a range of witnesses that the Government was lacking the necessary comprehensive digital agenda which made the most of the digital opportunity’

The report continues ‘There is a huge opportunity for the new Government in May 2015. The incoming Government will need to join up better, be much more strategic as it coordinates and delivers policy, it will need to advocate and to champion change and sometimes it will need to reassure and safeguard. This does not mean bigger Government or necessarily more expenditure, but it does mean a smarter Government that uses technology better and tries to support all of its citizens to use technology and to benefit from its impact, as well as supporting the clusters of firms and organisations that can lead the digital economy.’

The Report is scathing about the quality of Careers guidance on offer. It states  ‘Despite the positive picture put forward by the Government and Ms (Sue) Husband, the majority of the evidence said that current careers guidance was poor and outdated. Ms (Karen) Price described current careers guidance as “absolutely shocking” and as not working “for any sector or for any company”. This is particularly problematic given the predicted changes to the labour market; without the appropriate careers guidance and advice in place, young people (and the population in general), will not be able to make an informed decision about potential career choices.

Compelling evidence from Ms Price said that careers guidance needed to be turned “on its head” and that we should “do something transformational”. Dame Wendy and Lady Shields said that careers guidance needed to head for the “social network route”. The benefit of this approach was that it would allow you to “scale the advice and allow people, either as themselves or anonymously, to interact and have conversations about their future potential”.

The current careers guidance structure is outdated and does not support the needs of the future digitally-skilled workforce. It would be more appropriate to talk about ‘employment’ guidance. Industry has a vested interest in this; if employers want to close the skills gap and recruit the best individuals, they must have greater involvement.

And Para 174. ‘We believe that a radical rethink is required to inject imagination into employment guidance. An employment guidance service needs strong central leadership which coordinates local schemes.’

A cautionary note here.  Most Young people are digitally savvy but while   often masters of the social media , they can  lack the skills to navigate careers advice websites without adult support. A  report by Barnardos (2013)  -Helping the inbetweeners: Ensuring careers advice improves the options for all young people-   concluded  that helpful though web and phone-based services can be,  (Careers guidance can either be by telephone, through an internet portal,  or face to face ,with an adviser )  ‘they can never truly replace the advice and guidance elements that are present in face-to-face interaction’.

Note 1

Karen Price OBE, (see above)  gave evidence on behalf of the Tech Partnership (Chief Executive, e-skills UK),

Note 2

Sue Husband is  Director, Apprenticeships and Delivery Service, Skills Funding Agency

Note 3

“Careers advice is patchy, uninformed and often unimaginative.”— UK Forum for Computing Education (UKForCE) Written Evidence to Lords Committee on Digital Skills  –September 2014


Mixed picture according to Professor Coe

Professor Robert Coe ,in a recent introduction to a round table discussion at the Demos think tank said,  in a   debate on education standards ie have they gone up-  “ The short answer is that we don’t really know because we haven’t collected the right kind of evidence. But when you look at what evidence we do have, it’s a mixed picture. There is some evidence of a modest rise across primary education, particularly in maths, but it looks as though that isn’t sustained into secondary school. So performance at the end of secondary school is more or less flat. Some studies suggest a decline; some suggest a rise. This is not consistent with the headline rise in GCSE or A-level performance. Those, I think we can say confidently, are not real increases. International studies—such as PISA and PIRLS—shed some light on outcomes but it is again a very mixed picture.’

Proof positive then, that the  large scale investment in education during the last Labour administration, the like of which we are unlikely to see again, any time soon, did not deliver the expected returns.  Moral-it’s the quality not the quantity that matters.  And if you preach evidence led/ informed practice/ policy- then for goodness sake practice what you preach .

Indeed, while Professor Michael Barber, who headed Tony Blairs efficiency unit,  was  preaching ‘deliverology’ ie good  project management,  and trying to increase productivity,  across public services, in education, during those years it  actually  fell.

One should not blame Labour for trying. Indeed  its commitment to education during that administration was  admirable . But politicians from all parties  are predisposed to intervene in education to make things better, but often get it wrong or only half right,  and dont pay  sufficient  heed  to sound empirical evidence about what interventions work.

We know that turning a poorly performing  school around is a huge challenge. We know its even harder to transform a system. We also know  that everything we do has to be informed by good evidence of what works . The challenge now is to turn that theory into practice.



Steve Munby, the Chief Executive of CFBT Education Trust, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 10 February, said that it is  increasingly clear that Ofsted has become too open to political interference and that the judgements Ofsted makes are  ‘contestable’. He pointed out that  both the Labour government and the coalition Government have changed the Ofsted framework regularly (it has changed every year for the past three years), with the consequence that time and money has to be spent on inspectors and schools being trained and retrained accordingly.

Steve is surely correct in his view that Ofsted, which has played a vital role in holding schools to account, has now become too politicised

The autonomous ‘self-improving’ schools system allows politicians, by definition,  less scope to influence what happens in schools, so inevitably they use Ofsted as a lever to exert what influence they can . The latest drive to ensure that schools promote British values is just the latest Whitehall driven initiative that has left school leaders bemused and fearful as they have no clear idea of what is expected of them

Crucially the inspection system must be seen to be fair, transparent and consistent by stakeholders’ .Arguably it is none of these.

There is more than anecdotal evidence that points to inspection teams being less objective than they should be. There  are  now grave doubts that snap inspections can fairly grade either the quality of teaching, or whether or not students are learning.   There are long running concerns over the quality and accuracy of  lesson observations , which can be unreliable and prone to the ‘cognitive biases’ of individual inspectors . David Didau’s argument that stand alone lessons don’t provide evidence of much except the performance of the teacher and the students at that particular moment ,  resonates across the profession.

Having   first denied that its inspectors favoured a particular teaching style  (ie progressive/Traditional) Ofsted then quickly issued additional guidance to inspectors, on this issue,  which rather gave the game away. Ofsted’s  latest cunning plan ,is to have two separate  inspection teams going  in quick succession to schools , with the  second team double checking the first teams findings

There couldn’t be a clearer example of an organisation that has lost confidence in itself   and its own judgements.

Ofsted will almost certainly face reform after the next election, whoever is in government.  It is not about to disappear, nor should it, because   school  inspections  are  vital for any credible accountability framework.

Apart from moves to reform Ofsted it is likely that  Sir Michael Wilshaw, an outstanding former Headteacher, but perhaps less  sure footed  at handling what has become a highly political job  as Regulator , will  almost certainly , and doubtless  with some relief, move on to pastures new after the election.


Too early to tell if academies  are successful

More transparency needed 


Laura McInerney,  Editor of Schools Week, will feel vindicated by the findings of a Select Committee report on Academies, which states that the government needs to be much more open about the way it runs academies and free schools. McInerney has been waging a long running personal  campaign, using the Freedom of Information Act , (with only limited success), to force greater transparency from the DFE  over the detail of  how the academies  and free schools programme is being run and funded    and to find out more, for example,  about how and why  respective Free school bids are successful, or not, as the case may be.(She is not actually against  the academies and Free schools policy, by the way)

Crucially,  the MPs said that the Department of Education must become more open about how academies are run, and give Ofsted full powers to inspect academy chains

The Select Committee report said:

‘There is a complex relationship between attainment, autonomy, collaboration and accountability. Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change. This is partly a matter of timing but more information is needed on the performance of individual academy chains. Most academy freedoms are in fact available to all schools and we recommend that curriculum freedoms are also extended to maintained schools.

‘We welcome the appointment of the regional schools commissioners as a step towards making oversight more local again, but any lasting solution will need to be more local still and develop effective working with local authorities. Local authorities cannot embrace their new role as champions of local children, families and employers, rather than of school themselves, without codification of their roles and responsibilities in relation to academies.

‘The Education Funding Agency must enhance the transparency and accountability of its monitoring of academy funding agreements. Together with the RSCs, it must deal effectively with parental complaints about academies. We also recommend that its regulatory and funding roles should be split in order to restore public confidence.

‘Our report examines concerns regarding the oversight of sponsors and chains. The DfE should publish data on the performance of individual schools and trusts. It should set out the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools, as well as the process and criteria for reviewing and renewing funding agreements. The length of these agreements should also be reviewed, with a view to reducing the model agreement to five years. Conflicts of interest in trusts are a real issue and the DfE should take further steps to strengthen governance in trusts.

‘The DfE should be more open and transparent about the accountability and monitoring system for chains and the criteria used to pause their expansion. It should create a mechanism for schools to be able to leave academy chains where appropriate, and it should publish a protocol for dealing with the failure of a large chains and for how individual schools will be treated when a chain can no longer run them. Ofsted should be given the power to inspect academy chains.

‘There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. The DfE should commission such research as a matter of urgency. The primary sector benefits more from collaborative structures, whether with or without academy status. Maintained schools in federations should be eligible for funding to assist collaboration through the Primary Chains Grant.

‘We agree with Ofsted that it is too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided by free schools or their broader system impact. The DfE should make clear how the competition for free school funding is decided and the relative weight it gives to each of innovation, basic need, deprivation and parental demand. The DfE should ensure that local authorities are informed of any proposal to open a free school in their area. It should also collect statistical information on the intake of free schools and monitor the effect of newly created schools on the intake and attainment of neighbouring schools.


‘Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school. Both academies and state maintained schools have a role to play in system-wide improvement by looking outwards and accepting challenge in order to ensure high quality education for all children. Of the 21,500 state-funded schools in England, 17,300 are maintained schools and 4,200 are academies. The Government should spell out its vision for the future of schools in England, including the structures and underpinning principles that will be in place in the next five to ten years. Any future government will have to examine whether the existing dual system of oversight and intervention is beneficial.


The DfE needs to be far more open about the implementation of the academies programme: it has much to gain from transparency and clarity over its processes. The conversion of schools to academy status has been exceptionally fast by international standards. We recommend that the DfE review the lessons of the wholesale conversion of the secondary sector to inform any future expansion’


Committee chairman Graham Stuart told Schools Week: “Schools are doing better than four years ago when the programme was introduced but there’s a number of changes we think can be made.

“There needs to be greater scrutiny of the sponsors and the financial decisions. Regional Schools Commissioners need to be increased in number.

“The role of local authorities needs to be reappraised and written down so they know what is expected of them and what their role is in the system.”

Mr Stuart added: “There has been progress although it’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards. It takes a long time for a child to go through the reformed school system.”

Professor Becky Francis, who advised the committee, and is Professor of Education and Social Justice, King’s College London, noted that the evidence on the success of academies is mixed.

“We see both examples of striking success, but also of significant failure – this was also the finding of research on the success or otherwise of academy chains”.

She noted, however, that while the report emphasises greater rigour and transparency there is also an “impetus for a renewed focus on the quality of teaching practice in all schools, in contrast to the preoccupation with structures in our education system”

A recent Public Accounts Committee report (2013) was critical also of the lack of transparency in relation to Academies, specifically in relation to funding. The report said:

‘The Department has a direct responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ funds are used wisely at academies. The Department has incurred significant costs from the complex and inefficient system it has used for funding the Academies Programme and its oversight of academies has had to play catch-up with the rapid growth in academy numbers. The Department and its funding agency need to increase their grip on the risks to public money as more and more schools become Academies.’

And ‘ To give Parliament and the public confidence that the Programme is being properly run in the interests of taxpayers, the Department must improve the efficiency of its funding mechanisms and stop the growth in other costs.’

What to make of this? First evidence on the success of academies is mixed and it will take time before we have enough evidence to draw firm conclusions. What this report doesn’t say, by the way, is that academies and free schools under the coalition have failed.

What it does say though is that the government, for reasons best known to it, is very secretive when it comes to the detail on academies and free schools and the investment made in them. Remember its not the governments money that’s being invested. Its taxpayers money, and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent in education, particularly as increasing efficiency  productivity and outcomes  in education  are  goals . And civil servants in these austere times are supposed to be getting more bangs for taxpayers bucks.  As the report puts it “the DfE has much to gain from transparency and clarity,” if only it would stop “seeing every request for information as an attack on the policy.”

The DFE really needs to become more objective in  this important policy  area-after all aren’t we supposed to  now be in an era of evidence led policy and practice?


Note 1

New Schools Network Response to Committee report



Note 2

The National Audit Office has  this month issued an “adverse opinion” on the accounts of the Department for Education (DfE), saying they are “not true and fair”.The public spending watchdog says the level of error in the department’s financial statements is “pervasive”.Since 2012-13, the DfE has consolidated the accounts of all academies with its own and that of its executive agencies.As academies have a different reporting period, this has made it hard to make sense of the figures, the NAO says.



Some teachers worry about what the concept means in practice

Move  though against top down prescription


Evidence based practice we know is firmly on the political agenda, and will still be after the May election. There is cross party consensus on making sure that evidence informs practice and policy.

There have been attempts to synthesize the findings of educational research through the conduct of systematic research reviews (for example, the work of the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre at the Institute of Education in London), and attempts to make the outcomes of research more readily available to different educational constituencies (for example, Evidence-Based Education UK [EBE Network], a network for teachers who want to know ‘‘what works’’ in education. The Education Endowment Foundation is doing its best to point out which interventions work best in the classroom, based on evidence.

Proponents of evidence-based education stress that it is about time that educational research starts to follow the pattern that has created the kind of systematic improvement over time that has characterized successful parts of our economy and society throughout the twentieth century, in fields such as medicine, agriculture,  and so on. They suggest that the most important reason for the extraordinary advances in medicine, agriculture, and other fields is the acceptance by practitioners of evidence as the basis for practice, and particularly the randomized controlled trial  of the kind championed by Ben Goldacre that can establish beyond reasonable doubt the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of treatments intended for applied use.

But we are struggling to make the connection between high quality research that has been identified   as of practical use to a classroom teacher, and their students learning.   Part of the problem is that there is quite a lot of  conflicting research out there  that muddies the water and is, well, contradictory. Distinguishing between good empirical research and not so good is a challenge. Politicians and officials of course  have a long history of cherry picking evidence in support of political agendas which doesn’t help much either . Look at the polarised debate for example on Swedish Free schools. You can easily summon evidence both in support of Free schools and against ,  There is also a practical problem in incentivising the dissemination of research within a fragmented autonomous schools system. Some too have worries   over what they see as the managerial agenda of evidence-based education and its linear, top-down hierarchical approach  to educational improvement.  Research should really come from the bottom up, and top down prescription can, it is claimed, undermine professional  autonomy  and judgement.

Gert Biesta of  the University of Exeter claims that educational professionals need to make judgments about what is educationally desirable. Such judgments are by their very nature  ‘normative judgments’. He writes ‘ I have argued that to suggest that research about ‘‘what works’’ can replace such judgments not only implies an unwarranted leap from ‘‘is’’ to ‘‘ought,’’ but also denies educational practitioners the right not to act according to evidence about ‘‘what works’’ if they judge that such a line of action would be educationally undesirable’. . He continues ‘ there is a real need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relation between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves ‘  So the debate should not simply be a   technical one about what works-but one that is broader-  about what is desirable.

Carl Hendriks (Wellington Learning) and Tom Bennett at a recent conference on education research, articulated some of teachers concerns. Hendricks warned that evidence informed practice is a loaded, not neutral term.  It is not,  he said, about mandating a uniform or homogenised view of teaching. (Some teachers see it as a very personal attack on their own practice).  But Hendricks says it is about:

” Empowering teachers to harness the best available knowledge and evidence about teaching and then applying it in their own context using their professional judgement”   He wants  more informed practitioners” in constant dialogue with other teachers  and researchers”  There are two main Problems though -with capacity and implementation. How do you create the time and space for hard pressed teachers to get involved with research? And how do you meet the need to  mobilise high quality evidence,  presenting it to teachers, while  allowing teachers to reflect on it and how it can be  usefully applied in their own personal  context . Clearly though  teachers need to engage with a wider body of knowledge both subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, he said.

Tom Bennett says it shouldn’t be an evidence based profession but an evidence augmented profession-which  is very different. Teachers need from the ground up to engage with evidence. Research cant , for sure, he says, answer every question in education and indeed research is an ideological battleground  with  poor research  at times can hinder good teaching and learning. (Gary Klein the psychologist in his recent book on Insights reminds us that ‘research’ can obstruct in certain contexts  insights)  So, and here is a counter intuitive bombshell, the impact of research can actually be bad.  (Bennett cited the Brain Gym idea which purported to be evidence based but which he says  has been widely de-bunked) . Education is about craft too and teachers take years to develop their craft so its not just about accessing  the latest  evidence. A balanced approach is required to good teaching. There needs to be a research friend in schools, and schools need to nominate a research lead   with  researchers needing  to talk more to schools.. If teachers have a question they need to engage with research and reflect on it. . Research needs to be tamed and to be fully  integrated within the culture of schools, he said.

Clearly we are at the beginning of the debate on a research based profession, how best to apply research based practice in the classroom, and how to advance this agenda without alienating stakeholders. But one thing is for sure its now  firmly on the political  agenda . We need to  identify the best evidence on what works,  we need  also to look at areas where more good research is needed, we need to  make sure that  evidence   is read and understood by teachers , and we need to ensure that it can be applied not only in the classroom, at the chalk face, but is also integral to teachers’  professional development. In short, as the Sutton Trust recently pointed out ‘We need a profession with research, evidence and professional learning at its core’.