Tosh and nonsense: why working out what works is not enough

If we knew more about what worked in education how easy would it be to do it? A couple of developments this week have reinforced my belief that the answer to this question is ‘not very easy at all’, largely because the quality of the debate about what we should do is so poor that there is little chance of good, evidence-based policy rising to the top. First, a group of campaigners and academics wrote a letter to the Telegraph arguing that an early start to formal education for children is detrimental. According to the letter:

‘Research does not support an early start to testing and quasi-formal teaching, but provides considerable evidence to challenge it. …Children who enter school at six or seven – after several years of high quality nursery education – consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing. The success of Scandinavian systems suggests that many intractable problems in English education … could be addressed by fundamentally re-thinking our early years policies.’

What was the considered response of the government to this suggestion? Well, according to a spokesman for Michael Gove the signatories represented ‘the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in state schools’. Elizabeth Truss managed a slightly more detailed response on the World at One, although it did not amount to much more than an assertion that starting formal schooling later would exacerbate the attainment gap (the same attainment gap that was being invoked by the signatories as a reason in favour).

I don’t have a view on whether formal schooling should start later – I simply don’t know enough about it. But my understanding has not been advanced in the slightest by the exchange between a group who, whatever their underlying evidence, seem to think the best way of advancing their case in public is to say ‘well they do it in Scandinavia’ and an education department that denounces any proposals with which it disagrees as a proto-Marxist conspiracy to undermine education.

The second development concerned comments made last weekend at Research ED 2013 by Rob Coe. In his talk (which you can view here) he questioned what the evidence was that classroom observations lead to improved outcomes. He also said that Ofsted was ‘part of the problem’ in that it was not a research-led organisation. These comments, particularly in the context of the rest of his talk, were thought-provoking and sensible. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the coverage they got in the press. Predictably the TES used them as a platform for some good old-fashioned Ofsted bashing. The headline on the BBC News article was ‘Ofsted methods may not be valid’. Now that certainly was part of what Coe had to say. However, one of the themes of his talk was that lots of what we do in education might not be valid. In a sense, Ofsted just reflects the rest of the system. We might reasonably expect higher standard of the inspectorate, but it is hardly fair to portray Ofsted as a ramshackle and research-ignorant body that just interferes in the entirely research-based practices of our schools.

If sensationalist reporting is hardly surprising then so was the response from Ofsted. Enter Michael Wilshaw who confidently dismissed the criticisms as ‘tosh and nonsense’. What was the evidence for observations improving outcomes? According to Wilshaw it was a combination of improved inspection outcomes (which Ofsted themselves determine) and the fact that headteachers think they are effective – or in other words a combination of circular reasoning and anecdote. He might have well as said that all this claptrap about research missed the point. In fact he could have borrowed inspiration from the leader in this week’s TES which issued a rallying cry for primitivism in education policy, concluding that:

‘perhaps we should welcome meddling politicians, governing bodies and right-wing newspapers blathering on about teaching. Because the great thing is that none of this noise really matters. No hack, no jumped-up minister, no academic in his ivory tower will ever really know what works when that classroom door is shut.’

What we should we conclude from all this? I think we have to conclude that the task is even bigger than we imagined. By all means let’s devote effort to working out what works. But at the same time we need to work hard to improve the quality of the debate we have about education. Unless we create an environment in which the kind of arguments highlighted above are rejected out of hand by the vast majority of teachers, policy makers and academics, knowing what works is unlikely to get us any closer to doing it. Creating this environment is not going to be easy. Too often bad arguments in education are protected from criticism because we agree with their conclusion. Going forward we should focus on distinguishing not just between what we agree with and what we don’t, but also between conclusions that are reached in the right way and those that are not. If we don’t we will forever be surrounded by ‘tosh and nonsense’.

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5 Responses to Tosh and nonsense: why working out what works is not enough

  1. azumahcarol says:

    Sometimes I get the distinct feeling that policy has very little to do with evidence. The clamour for what works is more than a pragmatic desire for efficiency.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Excellent piece. Any suggestions on what formats and forums we can use use the level of debate? We are going to all 3 party conferences and quality of debate is high (but then Gove wasn’t invited) and a self-selected biased group of attendees who are engaged with the challenges and methodological and political nuances of applying research and evidence in the real world.

    We also organized a ‘professions summit’ recently with heads of all the professional bodies across health, social care, police, engineering etc. It was not clear, however, who the professional body is for teaching. What about teaching unions?

    Key thing is for this to not seem like imposed ‘from above’ or outsiders, as argued in a report by Jonathan Sharples at York Uni and the Education Endowment Foundation – for the frontline’:

    • Chris Hall says:

      It is a very good question. I’m sure teaching unions would be interested but understandably they have a whole host of other things on their agenda which probably take priority.

      Perhaps we need to formalise some kind of alliance between teachers who are engaged in these debates (of which there are plenty), researchers and other groups involved in education policy. We could then use this alliance as a platform on which to build a better quality debate. As long as members of the teaching profession are playing a key role then we avoid the risk of it being seen as ‘coming from above’.

  3. Jonathan says:

    … and apologies for my typos in response but on the move with a dodgy laptop

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