I am listening to Rockin’ All Over the World by Status Quo. This is not unusual in itself – it’s one of my favourite songs. But this time I’m playing it loudly in the classroom while my class are tested on their times tables. To me, it seems counterintuitive to expect children to concentrate while listening to music that is probably older than their parents. But this is a scheme endorsed across the school.
It’s easy to mock the rather gimmicky method, which my school has roughly based on the Times Table Rock Stars approach. That idea’s success (a reported 320,000 students have accessed the website in the 2015/16 academic year) seems to be largely due to the experiences of the creator, Bruno Reddy, a former head of maths.
While experience is obviously important – clearly my school is gathering some information about its own method right now – I’m wary of the way in which various approaches to education can be taken up on a large scale despite schools not necessarily knowing whether they’re actually helping students. I believe this is a particular problem at a political level.
It seems to me that empirical evidence is in short supply when it comes to education policy-making in general. The synthetic phonics method, still commonplace in the teaching of reading in many of our classrooms, was imposed based on the evidence of a small, localised and contested trial, despite opposing views from critics including the United Kingdom Literacy Association. It’s still a hotly contested topic, not least in a country where an ever increasing number of children speak English as an additional language.
Every election (or even cabinet reshuffle) has the potential to bring about new education policies based on nothing other than a wish to be different from the previous incumbent. Teachers and schools are frequently subjected to politicians’ whims and ideologies. Damian Hinds, the new secretary of state for education, for example, favours an elite network of grammar schools in every county. He replaces Justine Greening, the UK’s first comprehensive-educated education secretary, who definitely did not. She was only in the post for 18 months.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says the sector is still suffering from the policies of the former education secretary Michael Gove, that were heavy on ideology and personal experience, and light on evidence and rigour. Gove famously said during the Brexit campaign that “people of this country have had enough of experts”. That was certainly his attitude while in the Department for Education. In one instance, when Gove declared school-based teacher training was better than higher-education-based [pdf], I tracked the evidence back to a working paper that was actually written for the Mexican education system. His plans to reform GCSEs, AS and A levels have left pupils, parents and teachers across the country confused and overwhelmed.
Recently, the Department for Education asked teachers to contribute to plans to redraft sex education advice. I was pleased to see it was an open request, and one would hope that paediatricians, psychologists and educationalists would have an input – but this was not stressed as being important. The department specifically asked for the views of parents and children, implying that unqualified individuals’ opinions are on a par with teaching professionals and of greater value than academics and researchers in the appropriate fields.
Education seems to be uniquely vulnerable to capricious dabbling from politicians, parents and the wider public. It may be because, as everyone has been to school, there is a feeling that we all have useful experiences and opinions to add. But we don’t feel that we can lecture doctors on how to operate simply because we’ve had medical treatment. We don’t tell lawyers how to do their job just because we once engaged one to buy a house.
Others in the education community have also highlighted the value of using more evidence when implementing teaching methods. For example, Tom Bennett, director of researchEd, has rightly pointed out that low-level disruption in the classroom is one of the main barriers to education, but behaviour management strategies are still often based on “folk” advice rather than research-based methods.
Research takes a long time, effort and resources but, importantly, it can be turned into consistent, long-term policies that can last a generation rather than a parliament term (or a secretary of state’s tenure). As teachers, we ask children to show their workings, and we ourselves back up children’s progress reports with data. Surely it isn’t too much to ask that education policy, pedagogy and curricula are planned based on empirical evidence and rigorous research? We are frequently told that in the classroom “every second counts”. We shouldn’t be wasting time on the latest ideological hobby horse.
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