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.