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, www.cfbt.com

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.