Is the EEF failing to see the wood for the trees?

For many years the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which is part funded by the Department for Education, has been evaluating approaches to teaching and learning in English schools.

“The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring that children and young people from all backgrounds can make the most of their talents. We aim to raise the attainment of 3-18 year-olds, particularly those facing disadvantage; develop their essential life skills; and prepare young people for the world of work and further study.

We do this by generating evidence of what works to improve teaching and learning, funding robust trials of high-potential programmes and approaches which have yet to be tested. We then support schools, nurseries and colleges across the country in using evidence so that it has the maximum possible benefit for young people. 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.”

I have no reason to doubt the quality of EEF educational research or its potential for raising standards in our schools, but it has a serious problem that is deeply embedded in its founding objective. It is dedicated to “breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.”

This is not surprising given the association with the Sutton Trust, which also bases its work on the same false assumption that such a link exists.

I explained this fallacy in the first article on my website in January 2015. This coincided with the publication of my book, ‘Learning Matters’. This false link continues to be accepted without question by the government, the mainstream education community, the Labour Party, the NUT and the media in general. The truth is that it is cognitive ability (general intelligence) that drives school attainment. For pupils with similar levels of cognitive ability there is no significant link with parental affluence. The illusory causal association is a result of the actual link between cognitive ability and parental affluence.

I discovered this initially through my experience as a Cumbria head from 1989 to 2003, when I was a member of the LEA working group on the use of cognitive ability tests (CATs) for driving additional funding in the Cumbria school funding formula. Many years later, I carried out a case study of Mossbourne Community Academy (and the Hackney Borough Education Service in general)  in relation to the role of  CATs driven banded admissions arrangements in improving GCSE attainment. This is described in detail in Part 4 of my book. If the EEF, Sutton Trust, DfE, the Labour Party, the NUT or anybody else wishes to question this then they should ask ‘The Hackney Learning Trust‘, which is the schools division of Hackney Borough Council.

The Hackney Learning Trust has full and comprehensive CATs, GCSE and FSM data going back many years. It is a fact that, on average, FSM children perform in a similar manner to other children with similar CATs scores. This is true, on average, for all children regardless of parental affluence. The illusion of the ‘affluence attainment gap’ is a result of the well established  pattern of less affluent postcodes having a disproportionate number of lower CATs score children. This too is of course, on average. All schools and admission authorities that have CATs based ‘fair banding’ admission policies have the quantitative data that demonstrates this well established relationship.

This also emerged from my Mossbourne Community Academy study, with the data set out in by book. It can be confirmed by the Hackney Learning Trust. Any experienced comprehensive school head will know that this is true. It is why schools that have the power to set their own admission policies (eg Academies, Free Schools and some religious schools) may seek to deter the children of less affluent parents, which they rightly recognise as less likely to achieve the benchmark DfE and OfSTED aggregated SATs and GCSE results, thus threatening the future of the school and the job of the head.

Before Local Management of schools, Local Education Authorities (LEAs) usually tried to achieve balanced cognitive ability school intakes by manipulating school catchment areas so that all schools admitted their ‘fair share’ of pupils from less affluent postcodes. Some LEAs tried harder than others in this regard, with no clear relationship with the political party that controlled the Education Committee.

To be clear, I am not saying that parental upbringing has no effect on school attainment, just that parental affluence has a minimal effect compared to cognitive ability. Grossly abusive parents clearly disadvantage their children in many ways including school attainment.

As I make clear in all my published work, the importance of cognitive ability/general intelligence does not mean that this is fixed through genes or upbringing. It is plastic and can be substantially developed or inhibited by good or bad schooling, as borne out EEF research.

The problem for the marketised English education system is that ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools can be poor when it comes to developing cognitive and other abilities, while schools ‘requiring improvement’ or even ‘failing’ can be much better in this regard. Sadly school ‘performance data’ now always trumps the judgement of the few experienced (former HMI) school inspectors that remain in the system.

The findings of EEF research for specific initiatives (the ‘trees’) form a coherent pattern (‘the wood’), which EEF only hints at, that supports my argument. I first wrote about this here and here.

This is especially clear from the five reports published by EEF in July 2017.

Dialogic Teaching

“Dialogic Teaching aims to improve pupil engagement and attainment by improving the quality of classroom talk. Teachers are trained in strategies that enable pupils to reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond, in order to develop higher order thinking and articulacy. The programme uses video review, print materials and in-school mentoring to support teachers’ practice across English, maths and science lessons.

This trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.”

This is consistent with other EEF trials focusing on cognitively challenging talk, such as ‘Philosophy for Children’, and ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’. The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.”

This EEF conclusion is important as it recognises that the approach is not based on the learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of cognitive ability. Put simply, the pupils made more progress because the teaching and learning methods used made them cleverer. It is important to note that pupil’s confidence and performance improved in all subjects, not just the ones directly relevant to what the ‘classroom talk’ was about. This is the claim of the long-standing ‘cognitive acceleration‘ movement led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, backed by a huge amount of peer reviewed research.

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS) is a programme that aims to make science lessons in primary schools more practical, creative and challenging. Teachers are trained in a repertoire of strategies that aim to encourage pupils to use higher order thinking skills. For example, pupils are posed ‘Big Questions’, such as ‘How do you know that the earth is a sphere?’ that are used to stimulate discussion about scientific topics and the principles of scientific enquiry.”

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science appeared to have a positive impact on the attainment of pupils in science. Overall, Year 5 pupils in schools using the approach made approximately three additional months’ progress.”

This too was an initiative based not on ‘telling by the teacher and listening by the pupils’, but on the development of general cognitive ability through metacognition, pupil to pupil and pupil to teacher debate.

Success for All

Success for All (SfA) is a whole-school approach to improving literacy in primary schools. All teachers and senior leaders are involved, with the school receiving a total of 16 training and support days. Teachers receive pedagogical training – for example on effective phonics teaching – and teaching materials such as structured lesson plans. For the school leadership team there is support in areas such as data management, ability grouping and parental engagement.”

 This was completely different in nature to the previous two initiatives. It is all about the transmission of knowledge and information through learning packages ‘delivered’ in a structured manner to children in ability groups, with the whole process overseen by school management  through testing and ‘data management’. No mention of pupil talk or social interaction of any kind. Most primary teachers would recognise the mainstream current orthodoxy promoted by the DfE and enforced through OfSTED.

This trial found that Reception pupils in SFA schools made a small amount of additional progress compared to pupils in other schools after two years. The effect was slightly larger for pupils eligible for free school meals, but in both cases it was smaller than those found in previous evaluations.

EEF has no plans for a further trial of Success for All.

Challenge the gap

Challenge the Gap (CtG) is a school collaboration programme designed by Challenge Partners that aims to break the link between disadvantage and attainment. The main components of CtG are: after-school workshops drawing on published research and evidenced practice; focused in-school interventions with a selected cohort of disadvantaged pupils; cross-school collaboration and practice development; and practical tools and resources for use in schools and additional online materials.  Each school is assigned to a ‘trio’, comprising one ‘Lead’ school, which has demonstrated effective practices for reducing the attainment gap, and two ‘Accelerator’ schools, for which closing the attainment gap is a major priority. The programme lasts for a year, during which expertise is transferred from Lead to Accelerator schools. Schools initially target programme activity at a small group of disadvantaged students (12–15 in each school), with a view to rolling out the best practice more widely across the school and sharing what they have learned with new partner schools in subsequent years. The different approaches in each Lead school mean that practices vary between each trio.

The project found no evidence that Challenge the Gap (CtG) increased average attainment for either primary or secondary school pupils, overall. The security of the primary school results is low to moderate, and the security for the secondary school results is low.

The findings are different for children eligible for free school meals. FSM eligible children in CtG primary schools made 2 months’ additional progress compared to similar children in other schools, while FSM eligible children in CtG secondary schools made 2 months’ fewer progress compared to similar children in other schools. The smaller number of FSM eligible students in the trial means that these results are less secure than the overall findings

“The overall primary school findings, however, are of low to moderate security, meaning that we have limited confidence that they happened as a result of CtG. FSM findings involve fewer pupils and are likely to be less secure than the overall finding. In secondary schools there was no impact on the cohort overall, and a negative impact (also of two months) on the progress of children eligible for free school meals. This indicates that the gap might be widening in secondary schools. The secondary school results are of low security, meaning that we cannot be confident that they happened as a result of the intervention.”

The EEF findings were generally negative, especially given the relatively high cost per pupil of the intervention.

However, if there is no gap, it is hardly surprising that this initiative struggled to close it.

 Achieve Together

 “Achieve Together is an initiative devised and delivered by Teach First, Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust, to support leadership development and collaboration within schools in disadvantaged areas. Achieve Together offered subsidised leadership development training for teachers in middle and senior leadership roles, and placed graduates into schools. Beyond the programmes, Achieve Together offered a range of support to facilitate collaboration and alignment across these programmes, with participants working together on a school improvement impact initiative.

“The study provides no evidence that pupils’ GCSE outcomes improved in the participating schools, compared with a group of similar schools. While all of the schools used the individual programmes offered by the charities, approaches to the accompanying school improvement collaboration differed. Some schools were positive and teachers felt it improved their reflective practice. In other schools participants considered it resource-intensive and found it difficult to align the individual programme activities into a single project. Overall, the study provides no evidence that this version of Achieve Together is an effective way to improve GCSE results over and above any impact of the individual charity programmes.”

EEF funded this evaluation to test whether schools in disadvantaged areas would benefit from three leading education charities –Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders – working together to improve school outcomes.”

The answer was a clear, ‘No’.

What is the reason for this failure?

Could it be that ‘Teach First’ substitutes ‘on the job training‘ in Academy Schools directed by Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), for traditional ‘teacher education‘ in an academic  university setting that includes the full study of theories of learning? In other words ‘Teach First’ could be lacking in sufficient academic understanding of how children learn. As for the other charities that have since changed their names, see this Schools Week article from which I quote as follows.

School minister Nick Gibb said the report by Ambition School Leadership “underlines the need” to focus the government’s efforts in the ‘opportunity areas’. He added: “Excellent school leadership will be vital so we welcome the work of Ambition School Leadership in training the next generation of school leaders and their focus on areas with historically low levels of social mobility.” Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust have more than 18 years’ experience of developing aspiring leaders, and between them, have trained more than 3,500 school leaders. Today’s report found that in order to stop the decline in progress, there must be an increase the number of “high-quality” leaders in the ‘opportunity areas’ and better support for those in post. Toop said his newly merged organisation could now address that need by “offering participants end-to-end development pathways covering all levels of leadership”. He added: “Our professional networks have become stronger and more diverse, delivering more peer-to-peer support.”

The jargon is familiar as is the ‘magic money tree‘ that has funded these failures. The false assumptions are not only that an ‘achievement gap’ exists, but that the problem lies with failures of ‘leadership’, implying that teachers are not being ‘effectively led’ and that the solution is a new model army of leaders without either classroom teaching experience or academic qualifications in education or how children learn, but are well versed in the 21st century business models of corporate leadership of organisations, of which schools are just another example of the failure to apply the neo-liberal principles of market capitalism.

I write about this further here.

In conclusion, I have been a bit hard on EEF. I have no reason to doubt the quality of their work. (I do have doubts about the ‘months of additional progress’ success criterion.) The EEF findings are important, as is their tentative speculation that there might be an important general pattern emerging.

“The consistent results across subjects suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than subject knowledge alone. This is backed up by evidence summarised in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit that advises metacognition approaches – strategies that encourage pupils to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning – are a particularly effective way of improving results.”

Many more examples of this approach are given in Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

The EEF conclusions are all very true, and in need of stronger expression,  but no sign whatever of a change of course on the part of our Conservative government or the Trump-led education ‘reforms’ in the US, where the current behaviourist takeover of the school systems on both sides of the Atlantic, that is so damaging, had its origins.

The EEF and the Sutton Trust could have an important role in changing the ruling pedagogy of the English school system for the better, but they first need a rethink about the true nature of the ‘achievement gap’

The same applies to Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Rayner and the NUT.

I welcome comment, challenge and debate about the content and conclusions of this and my other linked articles.

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