Schools have learnt what works; now it’s time to do what works

Dr Lee Elliot Major and James Turner discuss the future work of the EEF. Originally published in Research Fortnight on 7th December 2016.

When Michael Gove helped to launch the Education Endowment Foundation in November 2011, it’s fair to say he was as sceptical of the experts then as he famously is today. What convinced the former education secretary to back our endeavour was the promise to evaluate approaches and programmes that aim to improve the results of poorer pupils in schools.

We would ensure that the £125 million of public money allocated to the EEF would be spent as cost-effectively as possible—and beyond that, we would add an additional £100m through fundraising and investments. This would not be sloppy opinion or ideological rants dressed up as research. This would be robust, independent, cumulative evidence-gathering of the highest standard.

Five years on, the foundation, working with schools, universities and not-for-profits, has transformed the evidence landscape of England’s education system. Pre-EEF, classrooms were largely evidence-free zones, where teachers had hardly heard of randomised controlled trials, let alone considered how their findings might impact on their daily practice. Post-EEF, increasing numbers of teachers have adopted a research mindset that would not be out of place in a university laboratory. It’s no longer acceptable to stick to routines just because it’s always been that way.

The EEF has so far commissioned more than 100 randomised controlled trials on approaches as varied as texting parents, to inculcating a growth mindset in the classroom, and the pedagogy of teaching assistants. Some have been found to improve the progress of the poorest pupils. Just as important, some have been found to have no impact at all. The trials—which account for 10 per cent of all such experiments in education globally— have involved more than one quarter of English schools and some 850,000 pupils.

At the heart of this endeavour is the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, compiled by the EEF and the Sutton Trust, which works to improve the educational opportunities of underprivileged pupils. Summarising 11,000 studies, the toolkit is an accessible Which?-style guide indicating the best bets for improving classroom attainment.

Its findings have challenged some enduring myths: smaller classes, for example, do not automatically lead to improved results. The toolkit takes a meta-analytic approach, considering each study in the light of the existing evidence and evolving to include the latest studies. It has now been used by two-thirds of school leaders across the country.

The EEF’s work is attracting global recognition. There is an Australian version of the toolkit; Spanish language and Nordic versions are being mooted. The EEF model—using state money to create an independent, arm’s-length agency dedicated to evidence—is attracting many admirers overseas. Gove has left a legacy of world-leading expertise in education evidence.

But if the ultimate goal is a genuinely evidence-led teaching profession, we are still in the foothills. If the EEF’s first five years have been about generating and cultivating evidence in classrooms, the next five will be about encouraging teachers to actually change their behaviour in light of the research, and to scaling up evidence-led approaches so that all schools and children can benefit.

Part of this future challenge is to show teachers the practical next steps that follow on from the toolkit’s general findings, including a menu of the most promising “off the shelf” programmes that heads can buy in. At the same time, the EEF will be launching several campaigns, based on actionable, practitioner-facing guidance, to spread the lessons from our evidence-gathering. Our research schools will act as hubs to disseminate evidence to other schools in their areas. All of this scale-up work will be led by the evidence, with continual evaluation of the effectiveness of different approaches.

The Department for Education is keen for the EEF to retain its focus on evidence. The government’s obsession with all schools becoming academies may have given way to controversial proposals to expand grammar schools. But beneath the headlines, more enlightened thinking is emanating from Whitehall. The EEF has, for example, been asked to review evidence of what works in post-16 education—up to now an area devoid of evidence.

Improving the outcomes for our poorest children remains the education system’s biggest challenge. The attainment gap between poorer children and their more privileged peers widened last year for expected GCSEs, including English and maths. Schools are facing harsh budget cuts as austerity bites. We hope that over the next five years our expert evidence can help teachers make the most of their increasingly tight funds.