Teachers are itching for a research-based approach - why don't we give it to them?

There is a thriving social media community of teachers interested in the exchange of ideas about classroom effectiveness.

You would be unimpressed if your doctor relied on intuition and "common sense", rather than the best lessons from up-to-date research, as the basis for deciding your course of treatment. Equally, you would be dismayed if national guidance on suitable medical techniques was significantly influenced by the opinions of Daily Mail leader writers. Change the context and think about education rather than medicine and that is pretty much the situation we have today.

In contrast with medicine, school teaching is not typically considered an evidence-based profession. Too often it becomes a political football subject to media moral panics. If medical interventions are to be determined by research into practices that work, why should the education of our children be different?

This is increasingly the view of teachers themselves. Calls for research-based teaching are part of a wider, and largely unacknowledged long-term transformation in the professionalism of school teaching. In Britain teaching has traditionally been seen as the poor relation to other graduate professions. This has been a characteristically British (and American) phenomenon. In much of the rest of northern Europe and the high performing countries of Asia, teaching has long had a standing on a par with the other leading professions.

But things are changing here. We are more successful than ever at attracting able graduates into teaching. Over 10 per cent of all Oxbridge final year undergraduates apply to become teachers via the Teach First programme. Many in this talented new generation of teachers are calling for a more evidence-based professionalism comparable to other major graduate professions. The appetite for change was clear in September 2013 when a London teacher called Tom Bennett organised a conference, which he called Research-Ed, for teachers interested in the application of research in their classrooms. The event was a sell-out. Hundreds of teachers turned up to debate the application of research at school level, and hundreds more were unable to get tickets. Many of the Research-Ed teachers are part of a thriving social media community of teachers interested in the exchange of ideas about classroom effectiveness.

Several education charities are taking practical steps to support more evidence-based teaching: the Sutton Trust/EEF, the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Institute for Effective Education at York. My own organisation, the charity CfBT, is working with the National College for Teaching and Leadership to help schools participate in robust field trials of promising teaching methods. While these are encouraging developments, there remain many barriers to making the research-engaged or research-informed school a reality. For a start, compared to medicine, the body of education research is simply not good enough and not comprehensive enough to provide authoritative guidance to practice.

Publicly-funded research needs to be better aligned to the challenges that practitioners face. We also need systems to mediate and communicate research findings to busy teachers and headteachers. Successive governments have created a highly autonomous school system, particularly in England where there are over 20,000 state schools, including many academies that are effectively independent schools. The support system for these autonomous schools is in flux. Local authorities no longer have a primary support role and while new "middle tier" organisations, such as Teaching Schools and academy chains are beginning to fill the gap, many schools feel professionally isolated. There is a degree of political consensus about the need for a new national College of Teaching, and such a body could potentially form the hub of the knowledge exchange. Meanwhile much of the best evidence, including large amounts of publicly funded education research, is locked up in electronic journals that ordinary teachers cannot access.

George Monbiot highlighted the problem of extremely limited public access to publicly funded research in 2011. Last week the academic publishers announced a new pilot scheme permitting members of the public to use education research and other scientific journals in public libraries for a two year period. David Willetts praised the initiative for connecting people to “a wealth of global knowledge - maximising its impact and value”. While this scheme is to be welcomed, this seems to me to be an extremely modest step. Can you imagine how the BMA would respond if doctors were told that they could access medical research by going in person to public libraries, in their off-duty time, and joining a public queue of people wanting to read electronic journals? The savvy teacher-bloggers behind the Research-Ed events need "anytime anywhere" access to information. Much is to be done, but the prize is remains great: better learning for our children and a discourse about schools that is de-politicised and rooted in evidence.

Front and centre: Education Secretary Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tony McAleavy is the Research and Development Director for CfBT Education Trust,

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.