Educational reform in the UK over many governments has been systematically irrational: policies have been imposed that directly contradict the most authoritative evidence. This has puzzled and angered me for some time. I’d like to know why this happens and look forward to your comments below.
First of all I’d like you to imagine you have been appointed Secretary of State for Education in the new European country of Rational-mania where government is unfailingly rational. How would you proceed? (I will later compare this with policy in the UK where we see the near opposite.)
Your rational education policy
As Education chief you would seek out summaries of research on the factors that affect student achievement, looking for factors that affect achievement most. Being rational you would realise that systematic summaries of research are more authoritative than any individual study and would turn to these for guidance. (See my blog the uses and abuses of evidence in education)
You would find that:
- what teachers do has a very big influence on student achievement.
- what leaders do has some influence but only if they affect what teachers do in classrooms.
- the type of school has very little influence on student achievement (perhaps surprising)
- the level of education of the teacher has next to no impact on their effectiveness.
You would then conclude that your job as a policy wonk is to find some way of improving what teachers do.
You would look at summaries of research on what teachers do, looking for what has the biggest effect on achievement, and come across the work of Robert Marzano, John Hattie and others, including the central importance of formative assessment as described for example in the work of Dylan Wiliam.
References: Buy from Guardian books not Amazon as the Guardian pays taxes needed to pay teacher’s salaries
John Hattie: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Visible-Learning-John-Hattie/dp/0415476186
Dylan Wiliam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3HRvFsZHoo
You would ensure that teacher training was mainly focussed on these highly effective teaching approaches, methods, strategies and techniques. After all they work exceptionally well in pretty much every context yet are not widely used.
Then you would ask how policy could improve the teaching of existing teachers. You would find Helen Timperley’s summary of all high quality research on effective CPD, and discover that there is only one way to improve teaching to the point that student achievement is subsequently improved. This approach, which I call Supported Experiments, has a huge impact on student achievement if done well – in outline:
- teachers identify the main problems and difficulties they have as teachers, and their students have as learners.
- the teachers then study best practice in solving these problems
- the teachers decide on one strategy or more to address these difficulties
- each teacher uses a trial and error or action research approach, repeatedly trialling and improving this strategy.
- teachers meet every month or so to discuss their attempts at using their chosen strategy, and to discuss how to improve their use of it. This improvement is discussed at the next meeting so the cycle repeats. (Teachers are learners too and need repeated practice, encouragement and support; who would have thought it!)
Supported Experiments: http://geoffpetty.com/for-team-leaders/supported-experiments/
When you study the education systems of the most successful countries as judged by international comparisons, Singapore, Finland, and so on, you would be pleased to discover that they in effect use Timperley’s simple model. You would also notice that they make little or no use of OFSTED style inspection systems, graded observations, SAT like assessments, or league tables. Timperley found no evidence internationally that accountability systems improved what teachers did and warned against them, so you would decide not to use these.
Okay, so much for Rational-mania’s education policy: how does the UK’s compare?
Andreas Schleicher of PISA: https://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_schleicher_use_data_to_build_better_schools?language=en
The UK’s education policy.
Our education policies fall into a puzzling pattern, where the reformers root around with meticulous determination to excavate the factors with the least effect on student achievement, the more irrelevent to achievement the better, and then they spend billions on implementing these hopeless policies, whilst by comparison almost ignoring the teacher effect. Let’s look at a few examples, I can’t deal with them all, there are just too many, there are very few exceptions.
- The last few governments have put enormous emphasis on turning schools into academies. School type has very little effect on student achievement compared to the very large effect that ‘what teachers do’ can have on attainment (Hattie 2009). But academisation has been pursued with billions of funding over decades. (Some research shows that academies improved attainment a bit in the early years, but not by remotely the huge effect that changing teaching could have had). Its not enough for policy to improve outcomes, it must improve outcomes MORE than alternative policies of the same cost.) The respected statistics programme on Radio 4 found that academies do not raise acheivement: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zy97
- To train as a teacher you must have a good degree 2:1 or better. There is no evidence that a better degree improves a teacher’s teaching. Now we have a teacher shortage.
- Government funding for post-16 student places has been conditional on pupils retaking GCSEs in English and maths if they don’t have a C grade. Retaking a year in school is one of the most ineffective educational strategies ever discovered. In international research it’s called ‘retention’ and its third from the bottom in Hattie’s list of well over 100 influences on achievement. It’s so disasterous it actually reduces attainiment. Retaking GCSEs isn’t the same as repeating a school year, but its close enough to ring alarm bells. In the past colleges decided that if GCSE had failed for a student, it would be best to try another strategy, and students studied ‘Functional Skills’, which integrated English and maths into vocational studies. Sensible, – but colleges are now bribed away from this strategy. http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/
- The effect of a school building on learning is tiny compared to the effect of pedagogy. Tony Blair’s government spent tens of billions on building new schools and colleges and relatively ignored pedagogy. Okay we like nice new schools and don’t want asbestos in our buildings, but this policy could never improve achievement significantly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_Schools_for_the_Future
- All the highest performing educational systems give great emphasis on the professional independence of teachers and on their CPD. They ensure teachers have time to get together in meetings to discuss how learning can be improved, and policy makers see this as the main improvement mechanism. Non of these countries have inspection regiems, graded observation, national testing, or league tables, etc. They believe in trust rather than control. So our governments have for decades adopted with vigour the very strategies the most effective education systems abhor. Andreas Schleicher: https://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_schleicher_use_data_to_build_better_schools?language=en
- ‘Assessment for Learning (AfL)’ was a policy intended to improve formative assessment. This looked as if it might at last buck the trend and improve teaching and achievement. However, in an astonishing denial and reversal of the research findings on formative assessment, the policy makers ensured this huge policy initiative did not focus on improving learning, but instead on measuring and recording it. This was in flagrant disregard of the advice of Black and Wiliam, whose research showed that measuring and recording learning had a tiny effect compared to actually improving the learning. https://www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6261847
Why do policy makers unerringly seek out ineffective policies, and even when gifted with a great policy like AfL, deliberately change it to make it less effective? Some would say that our policy makers are just stupid and ignorant. Tempting, but that can’t be it, they are reasonably intelligent and are educated, and if they were stupid they would alight on a good policy by accident sometimes. But this almost never happens. Policy is systematically disasterous. What is going on?
I will post my guess later, but in the meantime would be interested in yours.