Is effective teaching taking place in Academies?

The government has increasingly involved itself, not only in what must be taught in schools, but how it must be taught.  The schools minister, Nick Gibb, regularly talks about teaching methods that have been proven to work and implies that these are more likely to be found in academies run by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) than in LA schools supported by LA inspector/advisors.

The one certainty about education is that everybody has a view. This is because everybody has either been to school, been excluded from a school or taken out of a school by their parents. This being the case, anecdotal evidence is the major influence on lay opinion. The on-line comment sections of Education Guardian articles demonstrate the truth of this all too clearly.

It is only to be expected that this will apply to the general public, but what about Academy Executive Principals, the Chief Executives of MATs and the Department for Education? Shouldn’t there be an expectation that those in control of schools be aware of the evidence in relation to the teaching and learning approaches that work and those that don’t? This must be especially so given that the government has stated its intention to convert all English state funded schools to academies to be run by MATs.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF

The following is from the EEF website

The EEF is an independent grant-making charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring that children from all backgrounds can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents.

Founded by the education charity the Sutton Trust, as lead charity in partnership with Impetus Trust, the EEF received a founding grant of £125m from the Department for Education. With investment and fundraising income, the EEF intends to award as much as £200m over the 15-year life of the Foundation.

The problem we want to tackle – the attainment gap

  • Over 1.4 million (21%) children aged 4-15 are eligible for free school meals in this country. They will start primary school behind their better-off classmates – and this attainment gap will increase throughout their schooling.
  • The latest figures show just 37% of disadvantaged children achieved 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths, compared to 63% of all other pupils. Children from poorer backgrounds do worse on average than their wealthier classmates whichever type of school they are in.
  • The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is particularly stark compared with other OECD countries.
  • Young people with poor educational attainment are much more likely to end up not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Our approach to tackling it

  • We think that better use of evidence can make a real difference by helping schools spend money more effectively to improve the teaching and learning of children from low-income families.
  • That’s why the EEF invests in evidence-based projects which focus on tackling the attainment gap.
  • We then test these ideas rigorously. Everything we do is independently evaluated by top research institutions. The vast majority of the projects we fund are run as randomised controlled trials, while the rest use quasi-scientific designs or are developmental pilot projects.
  • We are publicly reporting all the results of these independent evaluations and including them in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit so that schools have the best possible evidence on which to base their own professional judgements – and we will then scale up those interventions shown to be most effective.

I argue elsewhere on my website that the ‘attainment gap‘ is misunderstood because of the failure to address issues of cognitive ability and plastic intelligence, and to consider the full range of available research into developmental approaches to teaching and learning of which there is a detailed summary in, ‘Learning Matters

However, the Teaching and Learning Toolkit is clearly the outcome of significant high quality research into what works in schools and what does not. Furthermore, the EEF website bears the logos of the Department for Education, the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Private Equity Foundation. So it is certainly not a ‘lefty front’ for the teacher unions or anti-academy political groups.

So let us see what the EEF Toolkit concludes. I am unconvinced that the effectiveness of interventions can be validly described in terms of ‘months of learning impact’, so I have just used this figure as an arbitrary numeric indicator of effectiveness – the higher the number, the more effective the intervention and vice-versa. Then there is the all important issue of cost. Interventions have to be affordable. The EEF website uses £ symbols – the greater the number the higher the cost of the intervention. Finally, the Toolkit shows the strength of the evidence using ‘padlock’ symbols. I don’t have access to those so I have used stars *. The greater the number of *** the stronger the evidence.

The interventions themselves require explanation and may mean different things to different people. I will discuss this later. I have listed the interventions in five groups in order of effectiveness: very effective (score above 5),  fairly effective (4&5), less effective (1-3), ineffective (zero) and damages learning (-1 to -4). Within each group they are listed in rank order of effectiveness, cost and strength of evidence, in that priority.

Very Effective

1= Metacognition and self-regulation (8)£****

1= Feedback (8)£***

Fairly Effective

3= Collaborative learning (5)£****

3= Oral language interventions (5)£****

3= Peer tutoring (5)£****

3= Reading comprehension strategies (5)£****

7= Homework (secondary) (5)£***

7= Mastery learning (5)£***

9   One to one tuition (5)££££****

10  Early years intervention (5)£££££****

11  Phonics (4) £*****

12= Behaviour interventions (4)£££****

12= Digital technology (4) £££****

12= Social and emotional learning (4)£££****

15   Small group tuition (4)£££**

Less Effective

16  Parental involvement (3)£££***

17  Outdoor adventure learning (3)£££**

18  Reducing class size (3)£££££***

19  Individualised instruction (2)£***

20  Learning styles (2)£**

21  Homework (primary) (2)£**

22  Arts participation (2)££***

23  Summer schools (2)£££****

24  Extending school time (2)£££***

25  Sports participation (2)£££**

26  Mentoring (1)£££***

27 Teaching Assistants (1)££££**

Ineffective ( in order of least waste of money)

28 School uniform (0)£*

29 Block scheduling (0)£**

30 Physical environment (0)££*

31 Performance pay (0)££*

32 Aspiration interventions (0)£££*

Damages learning (in order of least amount of damage and misspent money)

33 Setting or streaming (-1)£***

34 Repeating a year (-4)£££££****


This rank order of effectiveness will not convince those teachers that have spent their entire careers following and believing in teaching and learning approaches that the EEF Toolkit concludes to be ineffective. I understand enough about  Thomas Kuhn’s work on competing scientific theories to realise that scientists/teachers whose favoured theories are apparently discredited by evidence are nevertheless highly resistant to changing their views and are far more likely to reject the evidence.

I will not address objections and arguments about the EEF conclusions here. This article is not the place to get into that. It is too complex a debate. It is what my book is about. It is, however, very important to be clear what each intervention means in terms of the EEF research. The terms used are open to different interpretations. For example, there are many entirely different types of ‘behaviour interventions’, some of which are undoubtedly much more effective than others, and some, like very harsh discipline, make the five most effective interventions very difficult or impossible to achieve. What EEF means by each term is set out in detail in the Toolkit.

The crux of the matter at this point in the history of the English education system is the implication of this EEF research and its Toolkit for the assertions of the government that Academies are the best route to improving the education system and the life chances of our children.

The English Academies movement is a manifestation of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), and is still an oddity in terms of national education systems residing, along with its few relatives, in the middle and lower reaches of the PISA tables.The key question here is to what extent the English Academies system reflects the research evidence and conclusions of the EEF, which has been set up with a lot DfE money.

There can never be a definitive answer to this because individual Academy schools differ greatly from each other. There is, however, far more convergence between and within MATs and with statements about teaching methods and school culture made regularly by the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan and the Schools Minister Nick Gibb.

The following list is my take on what the DfE is repeatedly telling the public and the media about how they believe teaching and learning should be approached in our state funded schools based on what they are publicly praising as ‘good practice’ in existing MATs and their Academies. For each Academy school intervention/priority that it appears to me that the DfE is recommending, I give the EEF rank of its effectiveness.

Setting or streaming (-1)£*** – Damaging to learning, 33rd

Performance pay (0)££* – Ineffective, 31st  See my article

School uniform (0)£*- Ineffective, 28th

Extending school time (2)£££*** – 24th

Homework (primary) (2)£** – 21st

Behaviour interventions (4)£££**** – 12th=

Digital technology (4) £££**** – 12th=

Its rather a thin list comprising a mixture of what the EEF concludes to be moderately effective, ineffective and damaging examples of what the DfE and MATs are prioritising in their view of ‘good schools’. More could be added, but neither Nicky Morgan nor Nick Gibb ever mention any of the interventions that the EEF has found to be the most effective.

Why would Academies be so keen on ineffective educational practices? The answer is that while these may be bad for pupil’s learning they can still be good for the school’s exam results. The explanation of this paradox lies in the marketisation of the school system. School exam results are mainly driven by the mean cognitive ability of the intake. If anyone doubts that then they should study the Hackney system where almost all of the secondary schools operate ‘banded’ admissions systems managed and coordinated  by the Hackney LA. This is explained and discussed in detail in Part 4 of, ‘Learning Matters‘.

Academy schools must compete to attract the most able pupils. It goes with the ideology. This also applies to schools with ‘banded admissions’, which include many MATs as well as in Hackney. So the schools must have ‘market appeal’  with regard to parental perceptions like posh uniforms, streaming and ‘strict’ discipline, even if these are unsupported by educational research. If this also puts off the less affluent parents of more problematic children with lower Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) scores (the tests used to drive banded admissions), then so much the better.

My book, ‘Learning Matters‘, confirms, explains and supports most of the EEF research, especially with regard to the most effective interventions. Some examples are as follows.

1= Metacognition and self-regulation (8)£**** 

1= Feedback (8)£*** 

3= Collaborative learning (5)£****

3= Oral language interventions (5)£****

3= Peer tutoring (5)£****

Are these the approaches that Nicky Morgan, Nick Gibb and the MATs are promoting? Have they even heard of them, or are they just dismissed as lefty, airy-fairy academic theorising?

This is especially serious given the announcement that teacher training is to be taken away from our best University Schools of Education, where trainee teachers could expect to meet and discuss such ideas, to be replaced by ‘training on the job’ organised by MATs under the control of the ‘Executive Principals’ of each Academy. These all-powerful, usually non-teaching school bosses will decide on which trainee teachers working in their schools will be given ‘Qualified Teacher’ status and which will not. This seems likely to require teachers to enthuse about the  ineffective approaches to teaching and learning used in their ‘training schools’and to dismiss the research of EEF and other respected researchers. Unless trainee teachers, ‘toe the line’ (a phrase reported to have been used by a senior manager in an Academy) they may damage their careers in teaching. Nothing could be worse for the professional collegiality, self respect and morale of teachers. No wonder teacher retention has become such a serious issue as academisation has been forced onto more and more schools, imprisoning their teachers within damaging and educationally ineffective practices like Performance Related Pay.

All the other articles on my website are relevant to this one.

See especially

Telling isn’t teaching and listening isn’t learning

The evidence for ‘Plastic Intelligence’ and why it matters

Why mistakes must be celebrated

The bucket theory of learning and behaviourism

Educational Lysenkoism is blighting the English education system


There is much more in, ‘Learning Matters‘.

There is a concise version of this article here

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5 Responses to Is effective teaching taking place in Academies?

  1. Boingey Boingey says:

    Brilliant! An important analysis.

    You should see what happens to an academy that doesn’t toe the line in these things. After Ofsted evicerated a school where I was a governor, the Trust – a previously benign and disinterested outfit – then decapitated it (sacked the Principal and two Vice Principals, dissolved the LGB), and burned the remains, directing the replacement (shockingly poor) team to narrow a beautifully broad, metacognitive and engaging curriculum, cut trips and extras, stream by CAT/SAT scores in En & Ma, and implement a constant round of performance tracking points. Students, parents and teachers hate it, and luckily, the new team has been so crap, Ofsted report the school is not improving (has got worse), so the RSC rebrokered.

    Luckily for the school, the new MAT has become successful on the basis of offering broad metacognitive-based engaging curricula. In fact, the school had worked closely with them – via Whole Education – to develop its own.

    So whilst your correlation between MAT/academy compliance and ineffective practice is spot on, and important, there are pockets of better behaviour, where schools/MATs are beating the system by showing that effective (and morally correct) practice can achieve what we all want.


    • Thanks Boingey Boingey – You are obviously correct that Academies vary and some must be doing good things. Your comment does not however reassure, because of the sheer unpredictability and lack of accountability of MATs in a national education system where the government so clearly puts ideology above evidence .


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