What happens next? ​Learning from our literature reviews

Publishing a literature review isn't the end but the beginning of the EEF's investigation of evidence on key areas of interest for teachers. Here Stephen Tall looks at what happens next...

The EEF has published eight major reviews of evidence in our first five years.

We have looked at, in order: the impact on learning of digital technology; what’s known about what we term essential life-skills (aka non-cognitive skills or ‘character’); an overview of neuroscience and education; two linked studies on students with English as an Additional Language (EAL); the impact on learning of arts education; what’s known (or, more accurately, not known) about the evidence on written marking; how best to improve outcomes for 16-18 year-olds re-sitting their English and Maths GCSEs; and a review of careers education programmes.

Our aim in commissioning these reviews is straightforward. Though we hope (like the educational evidence we synthesise through our Teaching and Learning Toolkit and its Early Years companion) they will help inform teachers and senior leaders across the sector, their primary purpose is more direct.

We want to give ourselves a solid basis on which to begin our work of identifying, testing, and then scaling those programmes and approaches with the best chance of making a real and enduring difference to the outcomes of disadvantaged young people.

In short, the EEF commissioning a review is our signal we want to support teachers in improving a particular area of practice.

So it has been good to see three announcements in the past week that have all come about as a direct result of our published evidence reviews.

Careers education

We opened a new funding round yesterday. It will test the impact of a range of programmes (such as work experience, CV clinics, or an online app) designed to boost the future career prospects of young people.

We initially commissioned our review (conducted by the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research and the Education and Employers Charity and supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch) because there is good evidence that too much careers education in England is a ‘postcode lottery’, with quality varying considerably by school and area.

This highlighted that effective careers education, personalised and targeted to individuals’ needs from an early age, can develop the knowledge, confidence and skills young people need to make well-informed, relevant choices and plans for their future. This is especially true of students from poorer backgrounds, who are less likely to have family or friends with the insight and expertise to offer advice.

But there was a sting in the tail. Though the review did identify a number of characteristics of good careers education – including giving students the chance to network with professionals in a range of jobs, and allowing them to explore the different careers paths and options open to them – the researchers highlighted a worrying number of gaps in the research. Indeed, the review described the existing evidence as 'weak and fragmented'.

Our funding round is a first step towards improving the evidence base on which schools can draw in implementing high-quality careers education. By partnering with the Careers & Enterprise Company and Bank of America Merrill Lynch we will be able to commit major grants to finding out which approaches to careers education are most likely to boost young people’s chances of getting a good job after school. You can apply here.

Arts education

It’s a year since we published our in-depth ‘Impact of arts education’ review conducted by Durham University. This found – as our chief executive Sir Kevan Collins noted at the time in his blog ‘Why arts education matters’ – that ‘the wider attainment gains sometimes claimed for arts education are not as clear-cut as we might like them to be’.

Again, the current evidence base was found to be weak – but with a few studies suggesting potential that could be trialled to test the relationship between, for example, music and learning.

We were pleased, therefore, to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer announce in last week’s Autumn Statement support for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to investigate the impact of cultural learning on disadvantaged children’s attainment and wider outcomes.

We will be partnering with the RSA on this to trial a range of high-potential arts education programmes in schools. Further details to follow.

Written marking

Last but by no means least… The publication of our review of written marking (conducted by Oxford University) caused quite a stir when it was published in April. This revealed that there is very little evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning.

As Kevan Collins noted here at the time: ‘Rather than relentlessly pursuing unproven and unsustainable approaches, a guiding principle might be to mark less, but mark better, informed by what the evidence tells us so far is likely to have the most impact.’

Our review has been cited by Sean Harford, Ofsted’s director of education, in his latest update to inspectors. In this document he urges inspectors: ‘until such evidence is available … please do not report on marking practice, or make judgements on it, other than whether it follows the school’s assessment policy’.

The EEF is playing our part in generating new evidence to develop our understanding. Our current funding round particularly highlights our interest in evidence-based interventions that focus on improving the quality and impact of written marking. This closes on 9 December, so if you have an idea you think merits testing do please consider applying.

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As these three examples show, our evidence reviews can be valuable starting points, summarising what we know so we can identify where to focus our attention and resources. 

We’ll continue to commission them in areas where we think there may be an opportunity to build and extend the existing evidence base. Current reviews in the field include one on Science and – soon – one on business engagement in schools. Watch this space…