Speech by Dr Mary Bousted at Progress event in response to Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow Education Secretary
21 February 2012
Let's put evidence at the heart of educational policy
I'd like to commend Stephen's considered, evidence-based and ambitious speech. I want to welcome his proposal to establish an Office for Educational Improvement. I think it's a great idea. But can I also add a note of caution - no one believes that the Office for Budget Responsibility is independent, so very strong safeguards would have to be put in place if an Office for Educational Improvement really is to be able to report its findings without fear or favour. As the recent exodus of senior civil servants officials from the Department for Education demonstrates, Secretaries of State for Education are all too ready to get rid of turbulent priests.
Now we hear a lot of talk from this government, and from the last one too, about the need for evidence-based policy. And I agree with Stephen that evidence-based policy, not dogma, is exactly what the education system needs. So far so good. We are as one. But there's a problem Stephen. Evidence-based policy can take you into uncomfortable places.
I'd just like to take one example to illustrate this point. Research evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that here, in the UK, class is a key determining factor in educational attainment. Most studies put its effect as a factor of ten above any other - race or gender for example.
Now let me take a recent very high quality research study done by the RSA and OfSTED into the characteristics of satisfactory schools.
The report reveals that schools stuck in the 'satisfactory' grade have a higher number of disadvantaged pupils and working class pupils. Outstanding schools take their fair share of neither.
This finding is important. Outstanding schools disproportionately have advantaged pupil intakes. Satisfactory schools have proportionately disadvantaged intakes.
Given that disproportionate pupil intakes are a key feature of satisfactory and outstanding schools, you would think that the researchers would want to investigate the matter further. However, instead of considering the implications of unbalanced school intakes on school performance, the report's authors race to the usual, tired conclusion of more weighing and measuring - more inspections, reclassification and, no doubt, as this is the way of the world it seems, more vilification of schools struggling to make the grade and stuck in the satisfactory (soon to be renamed 'requires improvement') category.
So, my question is, why did the researchers take a pass on unbalanced intakes and their effects on individual and school performance? Here I hazard a guess. They judged that there was no point in evaluating the impact of school intake upon school performance because any findings they might come up with, through examination of the evidence, would have no political traction. Let's be clear, no political party in the last 30 years has tackled the issue of unbalanced school intakes because to do so would be to take on the powerful vested interests of middle-class parents who vote.
Yet when we look at the Scandinavian countries whose educational successes we all admire, we look to everything rather than to potentially the most important factor in their educational success, and that is that Sweden and Finland have far less wealth inequality, fewer children living below the poverty level and far more balanced school intakes. In Finland you still go to your local comprehensive school - how quaint.
I contend that it is difficult for evidence-based education policy to have any traction in this country where the educational debate is so toxic and so polarized. Where to speak of the effect of poverty and inequality upon educational performance is to run the risk, as I am doing tonight, of being accused of low expectations, of condoning failure.
Of course good teaching matters; here I agree with Stephen and Dylan Wiliam. Good teachers are worth their weight in gold. We need more teachers to be good. And I agree with Stephen that we need teachers to learn from one another, to collaborate and to work together to improve individual, school and system performance, as London Challenge, with which Stephen was so closely associated, did with such success - so much so that London schools are now outperforming schools across the country. It isn't rocket science; schools getting targeted help; teachers working with one another gaining professional esteem and status and raising standards.
But the school improvement agenda, on its own, is not enough. If we are to improve life chances for all, and enable all children to achieve their educational potential, we also need to tackle poverty, social exclusion and social inequality. And let me remind you again, to say this simple truth is to court vilification from the right, which is so toxic that it stifles debate and skews educational research findings.
To give you a flavour of how polarized and toxic the debate on educational standards has become, let me read you a paragraph from the Marmot Review into the effects of wealth upon health.
The more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health. So close is the link between particular social and economic features of society and the distribution of health among the population, that the magnitude of health inequalities is a good marker of progress towards creating a fairer society. Taking action to reduce inequalities in health does not require a separate health agenda but action across the whole of society.
As far as I am aware this statement has been widely accepted. No columnists have vented their spleen against the proposition that wealth and health are inextricably entwined.
But what if we swap health for education. Let me read the statement again with the revision:
The more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their educational achievement. So close is the link between particular social and economic features of society and the distribution of educational achievement among the population, that the magnitude of educational inequality is a good marker of progress towards creating a fairer society. Taking action to reduce inequalities in education does not require a separate education agenda but action across the whole of society.
Now we're talking. Now I am accused of low expectations; ducking responsibility and going to hell in a hand cart.
And what does Marmot say is needed to promote better health outcomes? Only social justice, fairer employment and a healthy standard of living for all.
Well what's true of health is true also of education.
So, I agree with Stephen that good teachers make a difference.
I agree with Stephen that the variation in pupil achievement within a school is greater than that between schools. And I agree that we need to do more to embed CPD both within schools and between schools so that teachers can be proud of their practice and learn from one another.
I agree with Stephen that we need better, more rigorous educational research, and I welcome his proposals for an independent body. It is, indeed, a brave suggestion for a politician, and it is greatly needed in order to introduce a modicum of sense into the debate on educational standards which is raging so destructively in our political discourse at present.
But I will say, finally, that if we are to take educational research seriously, in order to raise educational standards, we need to look at our society. We need to examine closely the effects of poverty on educational performance. These effects are real; they are present and they are dangerous. The right makes this analysis and comes to the wrong conclusions, laying the responsibility to tackle the educational inequality which results from poverty wholly upon the school. In their world view the school exists in a bubble, unaffected by the economic forces raging around it which will put 200,000 more children below the poverty line. We need to understand just what schools can do, but we also need to understand what needs to be done in terms of social justice to give all children a fair start in life and a fair chance to benefit from their education. Evidence-based policy, not dogma, should, indeed, help us to do this. But I repeat, Stephen, evidence can take politicians into uncomfortable places.
Notes to editors
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 160,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.
ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.