The varied ability of teachers in schools is a well-known challenge in improving educational outcomes. The evidence is broad and pervasive and the best advocate of how to address the issue is the internationally renowned educationalist John Hattie (Professor and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Deputy Director of the Science of Learning Research Centre Learning Research Centre).
In What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, Hattie argues that many policy prescriptions are distractions and that decision-makers are persistently drawn to the wrong kind of education interventions – what he calls ‘distractors’ – rather a coherent, system-wide focus on student learning. He defines this as where any student can make at least a year’s worth of progress for a year’s worth of input. He argues that the most pressing issue is to focus on improving the expertise of all teachers, specifically by decreasing the variability of teaching within schools rather than focusing on the differences between schools.
Hattie uses his own research as well as many other peer-reviewed studies to make his case, but did it have much impact on policy, politics or among education influencers and decision-makers?
Arguably, it did to a degree before the pandemic but since then, specifically in the UK, Hattie’s ‘politics of collaborative expertise’ seems to have been jettisoned for a range of large, expensive and incoherent ‘distractors’ that are unlikely to repair the significant educational disadvantage caused by Covid and permanently embed ‘the wrong kind of educational interventions’ into the UK’s K12 education systems for at least a generation.
One example is the £400m National Tuition Programme, about which I have previously published a critical analysis. For brevity’s sake, my contention is that the underlying evidence and organizing principles of the NTP were selectively cobbled together by the Education Endowment Foundation who since their inception have been the go-to education research and policy workshop for the Conservative government. Conceptually the EEF should be exactly what Hattie argues is needed to build the ‘politics of collaborative expertise’. Instead the way it was created and is managing the NTP shows both the limits of relying on a narrow constituency for the ideas for policy and the weakness of outsourcing large, expensive public programmes to organisations with no track record in operational delivery (especially outside their domain expertise of educational research).
Rather than rushing to create and deploy the NTP (currently estimated to be running at as little as 15% of planned delivery capacity for January 2021) as well as the necessary, but similarly important but ill-considered programme to provide 1.4m laptops to students (important but pointless unless we ensure these disadvantaged students can use them to learn), the DfE and government should have stepped outside its ideological comfort zone and consulted with the wider education community. This community is a broad church whose congregation often have deep ideological, pedagogical and related divisions. The term ‘herding cats’ springs to mind – how to balance the need for a speedy reaction to a crisis while using the best available talent? If you look conceptually the EEF has some of the best-educated people in the edu policy advice arena but that’s probably about 1% of the edu community. It may see itself as the cream on top, but without knowing how to nurture and milk the cow underneath the result, as we are seeing with the NTP, is thin gruel indeed.
This leads me back to Hattie’s focus on reducing variability in teaching. In this global crisis and specifically within education, if we can’t ignore distractors and focus on crucial issues like variability in teaching (on and off line) as a key part of our response, we can never hope to rectify the obvious damage. If we can’t pause and do better, we will never achieve ‘at least a years’ worth of progress for a year’s worth of input’. Happily there are a few promising signs in all the gloom, the most important of which has been the astounding success of Oak National Academy, which the DfE has supported with £4.8 m of grants. Having reached over 4m pupils and delivered over 60m lesson (inc. over 20m minutes of video every day) this shows that the ‘politics of collaborative expertise’ can exist; now can we do it at the scale needed by focusing on the most important variable in education, the quality of teaching?
– Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers – 2012 ISBN-13 : 978-0415690157
– Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn 2013 ISBN-13 : 978-0415704991
– The International Guide to Student Achievement and What Works Best in Education – 2013 ISBN-13 : 978-0415879019 (co-editor)
– What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction – Pearson 2015
– The Politics of Collaborative Expertise – – Pearson 2015 OECD (2010) PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do – Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science, vol. I. 2015