Sir Kevan Collins is the Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation
It is such a shame that John Bald chooses to attack the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) because on many levels we’re doing something he should welcome. When Michael Gove launched the EEF in 2011, he did it to take politics out of the classroom. The then Coalition government wanted to make sure that the education of young people was no longer subject to current ideology or opinion, but was instead underpinned by the best available evidence.
The EEF would give teachers a better idea of ‘what works’ for their pupils through robust, independent, cumulative evidence-gathering of the highest standard. But what convinced the former education secretary – and all of his successors – to back the endeavour was the promise to evaluate approaches and programmes that aim to improve the academic results of poorer pupils in schools, and then to support their scale up.
Seven years on, the EEF has funded over 160 trials of different teaching and learning strategies. Crucially, they are all evaluated to the highest standard by independent researchers. Among our findings is strong confirmation, for example, of the importance of systematic phonics to early reading, and evidence that catch-up strategies are no substitute for getting teaching right first time round for all pupils. Just this week, the Government announced a major expansion in morning clubs for children, partly as a result of an EEF evaluation showing that school breakfasts can be effective (and indeed cost-effective) in improving children’s attainment.
For too long, classrooms had been largely evidence-free zones, susceptible to fads or fakes, reliant solely on qualitative research with little hard quantitative data measured through rigorous trials available to support school leaders. Fast forward to 2018, and there is a huge appetite for high-quality evidence in the teaching profession – our resources are used by up to two-thirds of all schools (according to the National Audit Office) and over 10,000 schools have signed up to take part in trials of the programmes we fund. It’s clear that the vast majority of teachers want to do the best for all their pupils. They actively want to understand what the evidence says and to make good use of it in their everyday classroom practice.
So, let me take head-on John’s concerns about what the EEF reports about setting or streaming pupils, often referred to as ability grouping. The EEF Toolkit – authored by leading academics at Durham University – summarises the best available international evidence. This finds that setting or streaming tends to benefit high-attaining pupils, but it also cautions that this can be to the detriment of lower-attaining learners who are disproportionately drawn from poorer backgrounds.
We know the evidence base is not as strong as we would like it to be and – as the EEF Toolkit reports – that there are certain types of setting or streaming strategies that have been found to be more effective than others. Some studies have shown that reducing the size of the lowest-attaining groups and assigning high-performing teachers to these groups can be effective, as can providing additional, targeted catch up support. We are not only interested in what the evidence says but, importantly, in what schools which currently set or stream pupils can do to mitigate the potential harm for poorer pupils.
That’s the context for the first trial the EEF has funded on best practice in grouping students – which will be evaluated not by the researchers mentioned by John, but by an independent team from the National Foundation for Educational Research.
We have taken a similar approach with teaching assistants, where previous research had suggested they had no positive impact (and could potentially be putting back the learning of the poorest pupils). Yet £5 billion of public money is being spent on teaching assistants by schools each year. We drilled down to find ways to use them effectively and a number of the trials we funded have shown promise in improving pupils’ attainment, particularly for the disadvantaged. This, it strikes me, is a very real benefit of practical research in schools: finding how to create the maximum impact within existing resources.
We also know how important it is to support high-attaining disadvantaged pupils. We’ve called for them to continue receiving pupil premium funding to ensure they have the opportunity to attain the best possible results. We’re also supportive of the Government’s Future Talent Fund, announced in the Social Mobility Action Plan, to help high-attaining pupils to reach their potential. We want to see more effective strategies to stretch such bright pupils.
The EEF’s view is that the decisions schools make should be based on robust evidence and good value for money alongside teachers’ own professional judgement and knowledge of their school’s context. Supplementing expertise and experience with the best available evidence can only be a good thing.
And while the evidence on setting and streaming is not conclusive, it shows a clear pattern: it tends to be good for high-attaining pupils but bad for low-attaining pupils. And if teachers and school leaders know this, they are in a better position to choose a system that works for all their pupils.