“If ResearchEd had existed in 2011, we would have launched the toolkit here.”
So said Dr. Lee Elliot Major in the opening session of this year’s conference. The aims of both organisations are similar – although, as more than one speaker pointed out, the budgets certainly aren’t – working out what works in schools and making sure practitioners’ decisions are based on evidence. It should be noted that ‘what works’, in this context, relates to improved academic attainment. Whether or not this is a valid outcome, or one that is shared by all practitioners, is explored by Robert Peal here, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that everyone is on board with undertaking research to see what best raises academic attainment.
What I want to argue is this: if the EEF, through large research projects, identify incredibly effective practice(s) in schools, do they have a moral imperative to prescribe these practices? I would have thought it uncontroversial to suggest that the answer is in the affirmative, and at last week’s conference asked Dr Major:
“As your work continues, and your evidence base increases, you will presumably be able to more reliably assert that one practice or another (for example peer tutoring) is the most effective in helping students make progress. Won’t the EEF become more prescriptive, almost quasi-policymakers, to ensure schools use such practices?”
“No,” Dr. Major replied emphatically. “Our role is to undertake research and present the results. We would never say to a school you need to do this or that. That’s not our role.”
This seemed a measured enough response, and I think that I may have been the only person in the audience disappointed with it. After all, we don’t want to go back to the ‘bad old days’ of national prescription. And besides, it’s not in the EEF’s mandate to tell teachers how to teach.
But the goal of ResearchEd, it seems to me, is to ensure school leaders and teachers are making decisions based on evidence. Having only entered the profession recently, I was delighted to discover the toolkit. I didn’t need to weigh up conflicting advice from experienced teachers (“You need to put your children in ability sets” / “Mixed ability groups are the best way”). I had a shortcut to what actually works in the classroom. But what if my senior leadership team disagree with my evidence based approach?
It is possible that the evidence will be ignored simply because it conflicts with the ideologies or philosophies of senior leadership teams. Consider, for example, Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that hand-washing in hospitals dramatically reduced mortality rates. He collected data and published his findings, but it wasn’t until years after his death that the practice was fully adopted. If, following this analogy, the EEF are Semmelweis, is it acceptable for them to refuse to prescribe hand-washing to schools, stating that they have published the data and it is up to schools to decide what to do with it?
I don’t think that it is.