EEF BLOG: Six big schools’ challenges facing us- and how we’re responding

Stephen Tall opens up the EEF's really difficult box of big issues facing schools - and highlights some of the practical ways we aim to support schools in tackling them.

Shortly after 7th May, I did a brief presentation to the School Funders’ Network on post-election 'big issues' which I titled, “Money, Pupils, Recruitment”. This was a brief run-down of three of the key, current concerns for schools:

  • Austerity at the school-gates – an estimated 8% real-terms cut in funding by 2020;
  • Rising pupil numbers – some 630,000 more children arriving in schools in the next five years; and
  • Teacher shortages – difficulties in filling posts following a 17% drop in teacher training entries over the past five years.

Schools are acutely aware of these challenges, so it’s important those of us working with schools are mindful of the pressures they’re currently facing (or soon will be).

They are, however, ‘fact-of-life’ issues over which school-funders can have little direct sway. In the next meeting, therefore, I opened up the EEF’s “really difficult box” – my own (inevitably subjective) list of the top six challenges we think we have a responsibility to help schools to tackle. Here they are, together with some additional thoughts on the practical ways the EEF aims to help:

1. The attainment gap

It’s a depressing fact that not only do children from poorer backgrounds tend to start school academically behind their better-off classmates, but that this attainment gap widens over their next 13 years of compulsory schooling.

However, before we give in to the counsels of despair, we need to remember a positive fact: there are schools up and down the country bucking this trend, helping to ensure their pupils do not accept that postcode is destiny. In the North East last year, for instance, there were last year over a hundred primary schools (about 1-in-8) where the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals exceeded the national average for all pupils. Nationally, we’ve found a similar picture in 1-in-7 secondary schools.

One tool we’ve developed to help school-leaders understand more about their own attainment gap is the Families of Schools database. This puts schools into ‘families’ of 50 based on factors including prior attainment, percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, and the number of children with English as an additional language. The attainment of pupils on a range of measures can then be compared with similar schools. This can throw up some surprises – it turns out, for instance, that my old school in Liverpool is most similar to a school in Northampton.

The aim of this database is straightforward – to support schools to understand their own context by:

  • Providing manageable school-level targets on the way to closing the national attainment gap;
  • Identifying schools that have similar challenges that can provide support and guidance.

2. Fragmentation of the schools system

Over the past five years, what’s billed as an “autonomous school-led system” has been gradually replacing the previous local authority-run model. Almost 60% of state-funded secondary schools are academies, up from 6% at the start of 2010.

As the EEF’s chief executive Sir Kevan Collins has noted, this can be a double-edged sword. Positively, “it can drive innovation and enable schools to respond to the precise needs of its students and their families”, but, he cautions, “the dividing line between an autonomous school and an isolated one can be fine.” Where does the school which is struggling turn; where does it access the capacity to self-improve?

There’s no simple or easy solution. But we think one part of the answer is giving schools ready access to high-quality evidence of the most effective teaching and learning strategies – which is exactly what our Toolkit does, alongside its Early Years companion. If schools use evidence to inform their school improvement then autonomy can help achieve the goal of consistent excellence.

3. Transition points for pupils

Problems can kick in when children and young people exit one stage of education and enter the next stage: whether that’s from nursery to school; from primary to secondary; or from GCSEs to post-16.

One of the first major themes of work the EEF focused on was the issue of pupils leaving primary school at 11 unable to read or write to the expected standard. Just 1-in-10 such pupils subsequently go on to achieve five good GCSEs. So what can primary/secondary schools do either side of this transition that’s most likely to make a difference? We funded 23 projects working in 490 schools across England to find out more and published an interim evidence brief to guide schools about the approaches that offer greatest promise.

We have also broadened our remit to fund projects in Early Years, recognising that ‘prevention is better than cure’ and it’s better to begin as soon as possible in giving children the opportunity to fulfil their potential. We announced our first successful Early Years grantee last month, Maths Champions, working across 120 nursery schools.

 4. Beyond school

Schools are, of course, only ever a part of the solution in tackling the attainment gap: families and the wider community also have an absolutely crucial role to play in helping children and young people get the most out of their education.

We know from existing evidence that parental involvement can have a positive benefit – in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit, ‘parental involvement’ is found to produce an average benefit of +3 months – and that such involvement is often easier to achieve with younger children. The greatest challenge is identifying programmes which successfully involve the families of the most disadvantaged children. After all, if they benefit only those families who are already willing and able to support their children’s education there is the very real chance such programmes could actually widen the attainment gap.

To date, the EEF has funded five programmes designed to improve parental involvement, most recently a trial of the Families and Schools Together (FAST) programme, to be delivered by Save the Children in up to 150 schools. In addition, we are funding community-based programmes, such as the ‘Youth Social Action’ work in Lancashire, Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough, and the ‘Think Forward’ pre-NEETs programme in London. As these and other EEF-funded programmes demonstrate impact on attainment we will support their scale up across the country.

5. Character and education (AKA resilience / grit / ‘soft skills’)

Talk to anyone directly involved in employing young people, and they will almost certainly say that school qualifications are not the be-all and end-all. They want well-rounded individuals, able to hold their own in a debate, persevere when faced with setbacks, and work well in a team.

In fact, research suggests that character skills like resilience, self-control and ‘grit’ are well-correlated with academic outcomes (as well as with financial stability in adulthood and reduced participation in crime). It’s one reason the EEF has long had an interest in social and emotional learning programmes which aim to enhance children and young people’s non-cognitive attributes – two of our earliest funded projects investigated the impact on attainment of programmes called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PAThS) and Developing Healthy Minds in Teenagers. We are currently working with colleagues at the Early Intervention Foundation to develop our understanding of how to define, improve and measure social and emotional skills, and track how far changes lead to improved long-term pupil outcomes.

This year, we launched a ‘Character and Education’ funding round with the Department for Education dedicated to trialling strategies which aim to develop characteristics like motivation, perseverance and resilience in students. One of the six projects to receive funding, Zippy’s Friends, is a teacher-led programme designed to improve 5-7 year-olds coping skills, with sessions built around stories about a stick insect (Zippy) and his friends, who are young children.

6. Reaching the ‘cold spots’

A decade ago, London boroughs like Tower Hamlets and Hackney would have been the top priorities for many school-funders. Yet now, though they remain areas with high levels of deprivation, the performance of their schools rank among the best in the country.

This success shows what can be achieved (and in short order too). But it also challenges us to ensure communities in readily identifiable ‘cold spots’ beyond the capital – those areas struggling economically and with the lowest pupil attainment and highest gaps – receive the attention they now need to improve prospects for their children and young people.

This year, the EEF has announced the launch of two campaigns –in Yorkshire and in the North East – which represent a significant new phase of our activity, as we begin to activate the knowledge acquired from our funded projects in ‘cold spot’ areas.

Much of the funding will be dedicated to putting evidence-based ideas to work in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils, directly supporting the expansion of programmes we have found to improve attainment. Alongside these new resources, we will also work with local ‘advocate’ partners to provide support and training to schools to help them make the most of the evidence of ‘what works’ within (and beyond) the classroom, encouraging school-leaders to own it and to embed it within their own setting.

Our goals for these campaigns are two-fold:

  • to help create a reliable, self-improving school systemwhich, by providing high-quality teaching as the expected standard, ensures the maximum possible number of pupils are able to learn well; and
  • to ensure that those pupils who continue to need additional support to catch up and keep up have access to a range of tried-and-tested programmes in their communities which address their specific needs and which can be self-sufficient beyond the Campaign’s funding.

And if we achieve those goals, we hope it’ll make a big impact on the first five challenges, too!