Do experiment to improve education ; don’t parade counterfeit results as the real thing
Education needs “experiments”, but do pay attention to the results
Sue Littlemore, Chief Executive, Education Media Centre, former BBC Education Correspondent
Sat alongside Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, in a BBC interview, Labour MP, Andy Burnham described Conservative policies of more free schools and unqualified teachers as “like an experiment with children’s education, and you can’t experiment with education.”
Oh, but you can and you must. In fact they all do: Labour’s original launch of sponsored academies in England; the Conservatives’ enthusiastic extension of that, together with a determination to have more free schools; the Lib Dems’ introduction of the pupil premium. These are all education experiments, though the word is loaded – chosen by Andy Burnham, presumably, to make an emotive case against the Conservatives, as he bids to become Labour leader. “Innovation” is less toxic, and I might be happier to hear my son’s primary school is to be included in an innovation – a new way of doing things, rather than part of an experiment.
However phrased, the point is that experiments, or innovations, in education, health and social care, business, industry and so many other walks of life are a necessary way of finding out how to do things better.
Of course, experiments in themselves don’t produce improvements – it’s evaluation of and attention to the findings that do. Innovations in education are not always subject to robust evaluation, however some careful studies of the impact of academies and free schools in English education are worth highlighting.
The NFER, National Foundation for Educational Research, has just published a report on what the evidence tells us about academies. Beginning with England’s first academies, introduced by Labour to regenerate underperforming schools, there is good quality evidence that these early sponsored academies had a positive impact on pupil performance.
And so, according to NFER, “The early academies programme was a jolt to the school landscape that generated long‐lasting benefits to the pupils in these schools and to neighbouring schools.”
As the budget for sponsored academies fell, another conclusion is at least as important, “It is still too early to know whether the positive impacts of the early sponsored academies have been replicated in recent years despite the substantial reduction in funding.”
This should beg the question, “autonomy to do what ?” But rather, convinced that school autonomy itself drives up pupil achievement, the coalition government extended the option to convert to academy status to all schools,and,in particular at first, to outstanding ones.
“It is too early to say what the pupil performance benefits of academy conversion among high‐performing schools are,” says the NFER, “but our research has found the attainment benefits of academisation for pupils in converter academies are limited in the short term.”
This echoes the findings of the Education Select Committee’s report into academies and free schools published in January this year. Chair of the committee,then, the Conservative MP, Graham Stuart concluded:
“Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools. More evidence is urgently needed on the impact of academy status on primary schools and particular efforts made to encourage them to work in collaboration.”
Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has said results show that “students do better in academies”. Currently there is no robust evidence to support that claim. Results at academies are at least as much driven by the attainment of their pupils before they became academies, as by the fact of conversion .
Becky Francis, Professor of Education at King’s College London and adviser to the Education Select Committee, has commented on the impact of academies, “Looking at the picture more closely, we see both examples of striking success, but also of significant failure.”
Professor Francis adds, “These findings…support the impetus for a renewed focus on the quality of teaching practice in all schools, in contrast to the preoccupation with structures in our education system.”
This is not an argument against academies, or one in favour of local authority schools, nor is it a case for ignoring structures. It isn’t even a recommendation to treat research evidence as a trump card in policy decisions. It is, however, an argument in support of honest evaluation of education innovations and against parading counterfeit evidence as the real thing.