Gove ‘selective’ in evidence used for Education White Paper

26th November 2010

After a first read of “The Case for Change” I was struck by the fact that the early chapters showing ways to improve teacher-quality are clearly evidenced, but given this solid base few clear recommendations are reached about how the government will implement continual development of teachers. In the latter half of the paper, where specific changes are clearly outlined – e.g. introducing Free Schools, Academies, the Pupil Premium and abandoning National Pay & Conditions – the evidence to prove that these policies will make a difference was disappointingly flaky or scarce.

The White Paper makes the case for increasing Teacher Quality by using the famous McKinsey graph showing that good teachers substantially affect student grades.  This graph was also used by Michael Barber in his paper on the world’s “best school systems”.  Barber is unequivocal when he says the best school systems do three things: recruit the best teachers, develop them well and target support at students who need it most.

Gove could argue the Coalition is following these steps.  In order to recruit the best teachers more places are planned on TeachFirst and targeted support comes in the form of a Pupil Premium targeted at learners on free-school meals.  But, after several pages in the ‘Case for Change’ outlining ways to improve the quality of teachers throughout their careers the only recommendations are to increase the amount of time trainee teachers will spend in schools.  Given that PGCE students already spend two-thirds of their time in school, this is an insignificant change.  Even more worrying, of the teachers trained each year approx. 15,000 stay longer than 15 years.  There are 400,000 teachers in England.  Relying on improving training does not increase the quality of the vast number of teachers already in service.

Even more annoying than Gove’s ommission of policies to support teacher improvement, is the fact that Barber’s report clearly explains how it could be achieved.  On page 31 Barber describes how Japan has teachers take part in ‘lesson study’ where teachers work together refining lesson plans, in Boston teachers are guaranteed joint timetabled planning and in Finland teachers are given one afternoon per week for joint lesson planning.  I’m also surprised that the White Paper doesn’t draw on the US success of Peer Assistance & Review Boards, known as PARs.  PAR teachers provide 1:1 mentoring for one year to teachers deemed struggling by school managers or who self-refer for additional support. If after one year the teacher does not improve then the PAR teacher is able to request their immediate redundancy, however the majority of teachers improve significantly.  Given this wealth of knowledge, what is the one reform in the White Paper to improve the quality of the 400,000 existing teacher?  The Coalition will promote the fact that teachers are already allowed to observe for more than 3 lessons per year.

Why is Gove being so timid?  Why not commit to and implement CPD programmes known to improve the quality of all teachers?

The problem For Gove is that the latter half of the White Paper argues that the best school systems allow schools the autonomy to decide their teaching practice.  If true, insisting schools improve teacher quality through the methods shown to work in the previous chapters will not, in fact, work.

But is there good evidence that freedom for schools drives up standards?  There is no evidence for this anywhere in Barber’s report.  In fact, the following words are written out in large bold letters: “It was naive to assume that classroom quality would change just because we changed the system”.  These are the words of the New Zealand government after 5 years of reform similar to those being proposed by the Coalition.They are also written straight above the graph on teacher-quality used in the White Paper.  Why has Gove used the graph, but then ignored Barber’s overall message?

Even flakier is the evidence used to justify the implementation of Free Schools. For example, the White Paper states that Swedish Free Schools “have higher rates of achievement” but fails to look at research that controls for the demographic differences in Free & State schools.  When describing Academies, the paper says their GCSE scores are ‘improving twice as fast as the national average’ without reminding readers that until this year all Academies were failing schools with very low GCSE scores so improvements will outrun the rest of the country.  It is not that I am against Free Schools & Academies – in several situations I believe they will be beneficial – but to say this belief is ‘evidence-based’ is a prevarication of the available data.

Research on the pupil premium is also sparse.  The only evidence showing that funding “can create equity” – as is claimed by the Paper – reads: “In the most equitable systems, incentives, rules and funding encourage a fair distribution of talent” (Schneider, 2010).  But, while the White Paper implies this is a conclusion of Schneider’s OECD report I cannot find evidence supporting this claim.

The problem with the White Paper is that it claims evidence informed its conclusions, but a close reading of the paper suggests the evidence is merely being used to post-justify ready-made political decisions. Free Schools & the pupil premium were already decided, so the recommendations for these are detailed and well-explained, even though the evidence-base is sketchy.  There is no doubt these policies will be thoroughly implemented.  The fact that the paper is called  the “Importance of Teaching” would suggest that more would be written about teacher development; it is a shame that this has been missed.  Unless further flesh is put on the bones of teacher development this White Paper will do little more than push through school accountability and funding changes based on Gove’s selective hearing.

Laura McInerney- Policy Development Partner