The importance of evidence

The government’s white paper on education promises to improve the quality of teaching. Jonathan Haslam asks what role evidence will play in this process

THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHING – The Schools White Paper 2010, published last November, will set the agenda for education in England until the next election. But will it encourage schools to make greater use of evidence-based practice?

The white paper states that “All the evidence from different education systems around the world shows that the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching.”

Much of the emphasis on improving the quality of teachers is then placed on improving the quality of new entrants into teaching. The government plans to “raise the bar” by only funding those trainee teachers with a 2:2 degree or better; expanding the Teach First programme; offering financial incentives for the best graduates in the shortage subjects; and encouraging more “talented career changers”.

However, as Mike Baker points out in a recent BBC article, improving the quality of new teachers is a very slow way of changing the teaching profession. Given that only around 5% of teachers are “new” each year, it will take a long time for these changes to have a system-wide effect. It might be possible to raise this churn rate, for example by sacking poor performing teachers and replacing them with new recruits, but this would be expensive and, to say the least, unpopular with teachers and their unions.

The answer, then, must surely lie with improving the quality of existing teaching. The White Paper does offer more ideas on how existing teaching will be improved. The plan is to develop a network of Teaching Schools, modelled on teaching hospitals, that will “lead the training and professional development of teachers and head teachers”.

Teaching Schools will be outstanding schools made responsible for initial teacher training in their area, but they will also offer professional development for teachers and leaders. These Teaching Schools will be accredited by the National College. Local schools will be able to decide whether or not to use their services.

What kinds of professional development will be available? The emphasis seems to be on observation, with the white paper suggesting that a model of collaborative professional development will be the way forward. Teachers and leaders will be given time to observe and reflect on their professional practice and will improve as a result.

This is in line with the government’s view that teaching is a craft that can be learnt on the job. But is there not more to effective teaching than the received wisdom of one’s peers? Are there elements of teaching that have been proven to be more effective than others, for which there is robust evidence?

In some specific areas, of course, the government thinks so. “The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly for those at risk of having problems with reading.” For phonics, the government will provide funding for “high-quality training and classroom teaching resources”.

For the wider issues of good teaching practice, the picture is not as clear. No process is outlined for systematically capturing, validating and disseminating examples of good practice or more robust research evidence. The white paper acknowledges that the ending of the National Strategies and other “field forces”, and the reduction in the influence of local authorities, will reduce the resources that are available for school improvement. It also says that, with schools becoming more autonomous, they will be able to set their own priorities. There will be a “new market of school improvement services with a much wider range of providers and services available for schools to choose from. We will work with a growing number of providers to make it easier for head teachers and teachers to find out about improvement services on offer as well as making high quality research, good practice and free resources easily available.”

These providers may still include local authorities who “might choose to offer school improvement as a traded service”. A number of authorities are already putting their improvement services out to tender, looking for partners to turn these into trading services that can be sold on to schools in other areas of the country.

However, a continuing problem in education is the collection and dissemination of robust evidence of good practice. Through Better, the IEE aims to publish this evidence, presented in a way that is practical and useful. To make widespread change, though, requires something of a different scale.

Researchers and educators who develop practices and programmes with good evidence of effectiveness often struggle to develop their findings into something that can be easily applied in schools. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of resources or support. Educators and researchers are not necessarily great entrepreneurs, and, in any case, this may not be their main interest. This presents a problem, with many ideas that could be bringing about real improvement in schools left languishing on library shelves.

How can this situation be changed? Without some encouragement, will the new market of school improvement services offer schools the programmes and practices with the best evidence, or those with the best marketing? The government says that this market will disseminate high quality evidence, but it is not clear how this evidence is to be collected and validated.

An organised system of disseminating programmes and practices that are supported by high quality evidence would not have to be prescriptive. It could present schools with a range of information on the options available to them, with advice on which interventions might be appropriate for their school, and guidance on how to put it into practice.

At the IEE we develop and evaluate programmes and practices for primary and secondary schools, focusing in particular on literacy, numeracy, science, early childhood approaches, and programmes for gifted and talented pupils.

Our research uses rigorous methods, often randomised controlled trials, and we evaluate education programmes and practices developed by ourselves and by others. The findings from studies like these can provide reliable guidance for policy and practice.

We think it is important that this is part of a wider national programme to create, collect and collate the best quality research evidence, evidence that can be relied upon, and that can be repeated successfully in schools up and down the country. While sharing information between schools is useful, it does not carry with it any guarantee of success. The reasons why one approach worked in a particular school may not hold in another. Only by conducting scientific experiments, where many of the variables between schools can be ruled out, can we come up with information that is replicable.

The IEE is working on some initial ideas on a “catalogue” of evidence-based interventions that schools might choose. If you are interested in finding out more, then please get in touch.

The government has said that it intends to give schools more freedom to make their own choices. In its programme for the early years it has said that it will “increase the use of evidence-based interventions”, but not in schools. If the autonomy promised for schools can be combined with a commitment to giving schools support in using “what works” then there is real hope that it will lead to an improvement in our schools that also shows the importance of evidence.

Further reading/resources

The Importance of Teaching – The Schools White Paper 2010, Department of Education

Baker M, (2010) What Makes Good Teaching? BBC

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February 2011