What should be the next government’s top priority for education?

by Stephen Tall on April 17, 2015

eef election blog - st - apr 2015

‘What should be the next government’s top priority for education?’ That was the question I was asked by the Association of Charitable Foundations for their April 2015 magazine, Trust and Foundation News, wearing my day-job hat as development director of the Education Endowment Foundation. Here’s what I said…

Our top priority for the incoming government is to continue to focus on raising the attainment of economically-disadvantaged children and young people, closing the attainment gap between them and their better-off classmates. This is, we believe, the biggest issue in education, one which has serious implications both for the wellbeing of our society, as well as future economic growth.

There have been some welcome developments over the last 15 years in this area. Schools’ budgets increased significantly from 2000 until the financial crisis. And though that era of growth is over, the introduction in 2010 of the Pupil Premium – extra money for schools to support children from low-income and disadvantaged families – has seen more than £6 billion spent over the lifetime of this parliament on improving the attainment of children from poorer backgrounds. We hope the next government will maintain that funding, including its current tilt in favour of primary school pupils. Intervening earlier to stop children falling behind in the first place is, we think, the best strategy.

The challenge now, therefore, is not so much whether schools have sufficient resources to tackle the attainment gap – the schools budget will not increase in real terms in the next parliament no matter who’s in power anyway – but much more about ensuring schools are able to use their existing resources to improve outcomes for all their pupils, and particularly those from the least well-off backgrounds.

This is why we believe better use of evidence – by schools as well as by policy-makers – is crucial in identifying which approaches to teaching and learning are not only most effective, but also most cost-effective. If we are going to equip those in classrooms to make well-informed choices, that means all of us involved in education need to get serious about proper, robust evaluation of what works – and be honest with ourselves about what isn’t working (or, at least, what isn’t working well enough yet).

For example, one of the frustrations for education researchers is we do not understand nearly well enough why it is that London’s schools have been transformed in recent years so that they are among the best in the country. What contribution was made by the London Challenge programme? Or by the National Strategies in primary schools? Or by the concentration in the capital of high-attaining ethnic minority pupils? You can make a plausible claim for each of these three causes (or a combination), but the truth is we don’t know. And without that knowledge it’s hard to work out what to prioritise to help schools in other parts of the country to improve. This should be remedied with future government initiatives so that the right lessons can be learned, including their gap-narrowing impact.

The focus, we think, should be first and foremost about ensuring consistent high-quality teaching across all schools. This is especially important for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may not benefit from the ‘dinner table conversations’ their better-off peers enjoy at home. There is a role here for government in promoting better continuing professional development for teachers within schools, and clear merit in testing ways to encourage the best-performing teachers to go to those areas with low achievement and higher attainment gaps.

Meanwhile, schools should think about placing their most effective teachers with the children who need the greatest support – disproportionately those from less well-off, less well-educated, backgrounds. And given the evidence that, on average, England’s schools’ 244,000 teaching assistants have had little impact on pupil outcomes, there is real scope for them to be deployed much better – after all, they account for more than one-quarter of the schools work-force at a cost of £4.4 billion annually. A number of EEF-funded projects have shown that teaching assistants can be effective. For example, training them to deliver high-quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions has been shown to boost children’s reading by up to five months.

Raising attainment, narrowing gaps: that’s where the next government’s focus should be. It won’t be easy, and – sorry to disappoint – there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution. But if all of us, including the next government, see it as our key educational responsibility to boost the chances of disadvantaged pupils we can begin to make a real difference.

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