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I'm on the side of the 'hopeless optimists'

comment | Published in TES magazine on 4 May, 2012 | By: Kevan Collins

I regularly walk past a man posted outside Liverpool Street Station in London proclaiming "The End is Nigh". I've always countered with a nod and wave, wondering if he knows something I don't as I head down to the nightmare of the Central Line in the rush hour. I was reminded of this when I read Fran Abrams' suggestion in TES (6 April) that, in the classroom, only "hopeless optimists...believe the lie that they can make a difference". Here, as on my descent to the Tube, I am on the side of the optimists.

Abrams' claim was included in the TES piece "The 'good school' myth". The article is a timely reminder that there is a large attainment gap between rich and poor children. It sets out the evidence that, on average, children who live in areas of poverty do far less well than children fortunate enough to live in more affluent communities. It further notes that, on average, even when disadvantaged children attend schools that perform well overall, they continue to lag behind their peers. These facts are deeply troubling and it is absolutely right to highlight them. But it would be wrong to become immobilised by them or to allow ourselves to be convinced that schools and teachers cannot make a difference, as I fear the article implies.

To draw this conclusion would be not just counterproductive but also incorrect. There are 203 secondaries in England where the proportion of disadvantaged pupils achieving five A*-C GCSE grades including English and maths is at or above the national average for all schools, and 446 schools where disadvantaged pupils perform above the national average GCSE points for all pupils. As the graph shows (page 44), these schools are spread across the spectrum of disadvantage. They represent 16.5 per cent of all schools, and include schools of all types and make-up. To reveal the range of performance and potential for improvement, we need to go beyond the anonymity of averages. The graph shows that the real myth is the idea that a school where pupils eligible for free school meals do well must be a one-off, or have only a handful of disadvantaged students.

Of course, this analysis doesn't allow for other factors that affect pupils' performance - for instance, their ethnicity or the quality of their primary schooling. But still pessimism is not warranted. To find those making an impact on achievement, we shouldn't look only at whole schools. Just as grouping schools into averages can hide important variation, bundling teachers into school-level data can obscure individual contributions. For teachers working in schools at the wrong end of the graph, it's important to recognise that what you do may make the biggest difference of all. A wealth of evidence confirms this: one particular US study found that, when taught effectively, poor pupils make one whole additional year of progress over the school year.

So we know that teachers and schools can make a difference. The question now is: how do we help them make the biggest difference possible? There are many ways to tackle the issue, but I believe that better use of evidence is the vital first step. We need to use what is already known about effective practice, and we need to commit to learning more. As Stephen Gorard of the University of Birmingham points out, this isn't a matter of observing what happens in good schools, labelling it "best practice" and cajoling everyone into doing it. What we need is sound experimental research to find and measure the causal relationships between teaching practices and pupil progress.

But learning what works in the trial environment will not be sufficient. We must also ensure that, across our schools, teachers get the support they need to apply the lessons learned effectively. This will require closer collaboration between schools, and much closer engagement between the research and practitioner communities. Together, researchers and teachers can ensure that we ask the right questions, find the right solutions and apply those solutions intelligently.

There are promising signs that the research community and education sector are getting serious about adopting a "what works" approach. Last year, the Department for Education took a lead by awarding £125 million to the Sutton Trust, as the lead partner working with the Impetus Trust, to establish a new charity, the Education Endowment Foundation. Its brief is clear: to tackle disadvantage by building, sharing and applying the evidence of what works in raising the attainment of children from low-income backgrounds.

In our first eight months, we have agreed to fund projects working with 500 schools and 250,000 children. We know from the large number of applications we are receiving that there is huge appetite within the education sector - from teachers, schools leaders, local authorities, government, charities and universities - to learn through innovation and enquiry and to improve the opportunities for those children who need it most.

Living and working in East London, I've seen how the effects of poverty extend well beyond education. Its causes are complex and finding solutions cannot solely be a teacher's burden. But education has a special place in the common endeavour to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Encouraged by the examples of what can be achieved, and inspired by the concerted commitment of so many to tackle this issue, I believe there are (evidence-based) grounds for hope.

Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation.


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