Do primary schools need research?

This is a transcript of my opening address during a panel discussion at ResearchEd 2016.  
Primary school teachers have a lot to be proud of. Last year, the outgoing HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw praised primaries in England for their huge improvement and went so far to say that “the rigour …at primary stage is not often developed sufficiently at secondary”.

This is not to ignore any problems in the system, though. Around one in five children fail to reach what used to be level 4 in reading, writing and maths, and though we can argue about whether this constitutes functional literacy, it is unlikely to set children up for success at secondary and beyond. It will be no surprise to anyone here that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are least likely to leave primary school with expected levels of attainment.

We know that this inequality takes hold in primary, and that by they time our children leave us in year six the dye is more or less cast.

So although, in primary, we have much to be proud of, there is still a lot of work to do to improve our schools and strive towards the goal of all children leaving compulsory education with the knowledge and skills that allow them to lead lives of choice an opportunity.

Whilst politicians tinker with structural reform, we all know that, ultimately, achievement is dependent on the teacher standing in the front of the classroom. Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute, “School Improvement and Pupil Improvement depend on what teachers do and think. It is as simple and as complex as that”

What can research offer the primary teacher? With Dylan William staring at this conference that the problem with educational research is, that ‘when the teacher goes to the research cupboard, they find it bare’, you’d be forgiven for treating any talk of evidence based education with a healthy dollop of cynicism. After all, as Wiliam says, ‘everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere’

So I’m not arguing that educational research offers a silver bullet to ending educational equality nor a magic cure for poor teaching practice where it exists. Professional judgment, experience and the well honed craft of excellent teaching will always have a critical role in the classroom.

Having said this, I think research, from many different fields, can help teachers and leaders in primary schools in three key ways:

Accelerate development of new teachers

Many trainee teachers experience a sort of sink or swim approach to how hey fare in their first year. So much is dependent on your mentor, as you’re likely to learn much of your craft from them. If they are too busy or hostile, no real development can take place. Alternatively, your mentor could be committed to faulty ideas which don’t promote good student outcomes, and bad habits can be learnt.

Some think that there is no quick way to learn how to be a great teacher, you must weather slings and arrows for years before eventually possessing a bank of ‘how best to teach this to them’.

This is troubling for many reasons. “I’ve had 20 year’s experience” doesn’t necessarily trump a newbie in how to plan a lesson. After all, it’s possible that rather than having 20 years experience, , you actually have one year’s experience, twenty times.
How people (including children) learn

Whilst teacher training is still dominated by bloom’s taxonomy, Vygotsky’s ZPDs and Piaget’s…whatever Piaget talked about, there has been a boom in the field of cognitive psychology, the science of how we think and learn, and how this might be applied to education. Dan Wilingham tells us that students are far more alike than different in how they learn, and so broad principles of how best to teach can be derived from these principles. Bjork’s notion of desirable difficulties, the idea of embedding retrieval practice into lessons and are all examples of findings from research that can help us plan and teach every lesson, every day. Many of these principles are helpfully summarised in the Deans for Impact ‘Science of Learning’ report.

Best bets

One of the difficulties with having debates around education is the annoying fact that basically everything works. This means that you can feel like there is no need for you to be preached to by some academic or nosey management figure, because you know that the children are learning! In fact, we are constantly making choices about what and how we teach, and it is very possible that although you’ve made a good choice, there is a more good choice out there that you could have been doing instead. Although a blunt instrument, educational research, especially the EEF toolkit and reports like the Sutton trusts what makes great teachings, provide us with best bets. On balance, how should I approach x or y.

For these three reasons, thoughtful engagement with academic research in primary should be welcomed.



  1. This a reflective post – but there are a number of concerns raised about the Education Endowment Foundation’s summaries and also its criteria for being able to apply for a research project.

    Sometimes, often in fact, rich corporate organisations can take on a life of their own which could result in more weight and sway than is truly warranted.

    1. A good point. Whilst interrogating primary research with an objective and informed mind would of course be preferable, this is not realistic for full time class teachers. So summaries, which may well suffer the flaws you outline (and more) are, I’d argue, a good starting point. Delving deeper would be step two, but we haven’t got very many teacher doing the first step yet!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s