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The Evidence for What Works in education

4 Mar, 2013
A summary of our Evidence in Education dinner - in illustration form

A summary of our Evidence in Education dinner – in illustration form

Hilary Leevers discusses some exciting developments bringing evidence-based policy to education.

Earlier today the government announced a new What Works Network that will build, collate and evaluate evidence in different areas of public policy to enhance policymaking and practice.

Included in the network of six centres is NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which offers authoritative recommendations on the most effective ways to prevent and treat disease and ill health. NICE ensures that everyone has access to expert judgments and reduces variability and the inefficiency that would result from individual practioners making decisions for every intervention.

The other centre already in existence, but perhaps less well known, is the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), established in 2011 to focus on reducing the impact of social disadvantage on educational outcomes. Unlike the new centres, the EEF has a significant amount of funding, £125 million, from the government. Much of this will be invested in research, typically randomised control trials, to build up the evidence base of what works in education. Over 1400 schools are already participating in the research. Importantly the EEF is concurrently building mechanisms to disseminate the evidence. It has already established an online toolkit that offers straightforward advice on the impact of different educational interventions based on 5 500 educational research studies.

It’s rather exciting to see today’s announcements providing a concrete outcome to growing rhetoric across government and beyond in support of evidence based policymaking. In June last year, a paper by the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team and Ben ‘Bad Science’ Goldacre advocated greater use of evidence across policymaking, in particular, extending the use of randomised control trials from its core domain of health to influence other areas of policymaking. Also in 2012, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, noted the interesting role that evidence based policymaking can play in a coalition government as “a glue that can stick divergent political traditions together”. The tight economic situation also incentivises the use of cost-benefit analyses to ensure that publicly funded programmes are effective and good value.

So how does this move to evidence-based policymaking affect education? As a funder of scientific research, the Wellcome Trust is in the business of funding studies that use rigorous methodologies to gather scientific evidence. It is an interesting challenge to apply the same approach to the work that we do to improve science education; we have only shakey foundations to build upon in a field with little tradition of rigorous evidence-based practice.

We do, however, hope to lead by example. Our biggest programme of work in education is to invest in the professional development of science teachers and technicians. The shortage of teachers with the relevant science background let alone up-to-date pedagogical skills and scientific knowledge had been clearly identified, for instance in the Roberts Review of 2002 and a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report in 2001.

In response, a national network of Science Learning Centres was established, with the Wellcome Trust funding a National Centre offering residential courses complemented by nine Regional Centres funded by the government. There is now evidence for the positive impact of these centres on teacher skills and retention and on student performance in science GCSEs (National Audit Office, 2010), summarised in an expert review in 2012.

Much of the work of the centres had been focused on secondary teaching, but the Trust is now working with the National Science Learning Centre to run a randomised control trial evaluating the impact of an extended professional development course on primary science leaders and their students. This single study will add to many more funded by the EEF and others to build up the evidence base for education, but much more is needed to change the nature of education policy and practice.

Last week, Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, hosted a discussion dinner where participants considered the wider use of evidence in education, drawing upon their breadth of expertise, including research, practise and policy across health, economics and education. An illustrator from Scriberia captured the discussion as fast as we produced it (above).

You can read another diner’s take on the evening on Dame Athene Donald’s blog. As she describes, there was much discussion about the infrastructure that accompanies evidence in the health sector and its shortage in education. Health has hundreds of thousands of research trials to inform practice but the sector has also created an independent infrastructure that enables:

  • systematic dissemination of the evidence produced, including through discriminating research journals
  • efficient evaluation of this evidence, such as through NICE
  • a career structure based on evidence-based practice with the need for regular updating of expertise.

The EEF is charged not just with funding research, but also with evaluating and disseminating it. Academic journals can support this process. But what really needs to come into play is teachers who expect to base their practise on rigorous evidence and are willing to invest in doing so.

Teachers are to some extent used to working from evidence. Much of teacher training is shaped by research evidence and many teachers research the impact of different practice in their own classes, often readily disseminating findings informally through peers. However, there is not a strong expectation that only rigorously tested practice should be implemented, and certainly no requirement for a controlled trial. This runs right the way through from the classroom to government. Indeed Nesta’s report that accompanied today’s announcement noted that out of 70 programmes implemented by the Department for Education, only a handful had been robustly evaluated.

For evidence to truly inform education, we need to educate all of those involved in making decisions about or delivering education to discriminate more effectively between the value of different types of evidence. While much of teacher training may be evidence based, it doesn’t equip teachers with the skills needed to evaluate evidence themselves. We also need to recognise and reward the implementation of evidence based practice and provide mandatory professional development to enable the dissemination of new approaches – using analogous systems for career development that exist in other professions, such as law and medicine. Teachers also have a vital role to play in shaping the big research questions as we move forward.

Too often education policy is subject to political game playing. But with the coalition government backing What Works centres and the Shadow Secretary of State for Education’s having proposed a similar ‘Office for Educational Improvement’ we can hope for greater consensus and reduce turbulence in education policy.

Hilary Leevers

Dr Hilary Leevers is Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust.

Image credit: Scriberia
4 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 Jan, 2016 3:06 pm

    I hope i will contribute toward this subject so that the world can see how education in some parts in Africa are offered.


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