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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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”