Matthew Syed ,in the Times on 15 August ,in a piece arguing the importance of randomised control  trials, posed the question -what  is  ‘the most effective way of improving education in sub-Saharan Africa: more textbooks, illustrated flipcharts or de-worming medication? Lots of people had lots of different answers, but they didn’t really know until a trial was conducted. The result? De-worming worked best, by far.

Why? Because the books were not of much value to these kids, as their English wasn’t good enough. And, besides, they were absent the whole time because of illnesses caused by intestinal worms. Getting them into school with cheap, effective medication transformed outcomes. Who would have guessed it? Without a trial, nobody.’

Some now see randomised controlled trials (RCTs) as the gold standard for evidence-based educational practice.

Politicians aided by educators have too often in the past conceived new educational policy which is then enthusiastically accepted and applied.  There is then a belated recognition that it might be necessary to show that said policy actually works. Evaluation then takes place long after the untested intervention is already  widely in  use.

In a randomised control trial, study participants are randomly assigned to one of two groups: the experimental group receiving the intervention that is being tested and a comparison group (control) which receives a conventional treatment, or placebo. They have been widely used in the medical profession for some time after it was discovered that some treatments that had been widely used for years were actually harming rather than curing patients. The reason was that they had not been properly evaluated and tested, using for example, RCT.

Dr Ben Goldacre, a doctor and researcher, and keen advocate of RCTs, has argued that  high-quality research into different approaches should be embedded as seamlessly as possible into everyday activity in education. He says this would not only benefit pupils but increase teachers’ independence. Drawing on comparisons between education and medicine, he said medicine had ‘leapt forward’ by creating a simple infrastructure that supports evidence-based practice, making it commonplace.

The DFE  last year announced some  RCTs including one on school attainment in mathematics and science and Safeguarding Assessment and Analysis Framework (SAAF) child protection assessment tool.

The National College for Teaching and Leadership is also encouraging teachers with a track record of reducing the attainment gap to put forward their best strategies for rigorous testing, using research methods including RCTs. The £4 million research scheme ‘Closing the gap: test and learn’ was launched in 2013. It will see a number of strategies analysed to establish which are the most effective and could be replicated across the country. It is anticipated that up to 1,000 schools and many more teachers could be involved in the project. Initial findings are due to be published this year


The Department for Education has also of course  allocated £135 million to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to improve quantitative data available in education.



  1. I think this article fails to give sufficient attention to the differences between social and medical interventions. An important difference is that you cannot disguise who is getting the new treatment in a social intervention: it is possible to get doctors to prescribe treatment without them or their patients knowing who is getting the new pill and who is getting the standard treatment. This is called a double-blind, and its importance in clinical trials is well established.
    This inability to disguise from the participants which condition they are in – intervention of control – can fatally undermine many attempts at RCTs in education. Just knowing they have been chosen to deliver the new method will make teachers behave differently. If the new method does prove superior, and it is rolled out to all schools, the teachers being required to implement it will no longer feel special, pioneers of educational innovation. The performance of the new method might then fall to that of the standard method – or even below. In this way, the transparency of the intervention to those delivering it can compromise the external validity of RCTs in education.

    • Thanks . Some interesting points and Dylan Wiliam has expressed some reservations about RCTs use in schools and education more generally

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