Why does the EEF commission literature reviews?

The EEF has announced it's commissioning three new literature reviews in recent weeks. Stephen Tall explains what it is we hope to learn - and what it may signal for potential new funding rounds…

What are the most promising types of careers education, which also improve pupils’ success at school and beyond? Which approaches and programmes have been shown to be most effective in improving outcomes for 16-18 year olds who have failed to achieve the expected C grade in GCSE English and mathematics? How can we best support young people to achieve better attainment and increased post-compulsory participation in science, especially for disadvantaged students?

In the past couple of months, the EEF has launched three literature reviews, each inviting expressions of interest from researchers with extensive experience in these fields, which aim to answer these questions.

They aren’t the first such reviews we’ve commissioned. In our first four years we’ve also published literature reviews focusing on the impact of digital technology on learning (2012), literacy at the primary/secondary transition (2012), non-cognitive skills (2013), education and neuroscience (2014), two linked studies on pupils with English as an Additional Language (2015),  and arts education (2015).

What is it we’re hoping to learn from these reviews? Well, if you look at the tender specifications we’ve issued, some phrases are common to them all. We aim to find out, on the basis of robust causal evidence using experimental and quasi-experimental designs:

  • which interventions and approaches have demonstrated evidence of impact on young people’s outcomes;
  • what these outcomes are;
  • the quality of this evidence – how good and consistent it is, and where is further research needed;
  • and what does it suggest are the key features of effective practice.

And while the reviews will explore the impact on attainment and related measures for all pupils, they will always highlight any evidence that is particularly relevant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We think of them as evidence-sifting exercises: they highlight the most promising approaches and programmes which we might want to fund, in particular if we are looking to explore a particular theme in depth.

And in the case of the EAL reviews we published last year (jointly with Unbound Philanthropy and the Bell Foundation), they also focused our attention on those groups of pupils most likely to be at risk of failing to achieve at school – to take an obvious extreme, the experience of a Somalian refugee arriving in Yorkshire aged nine is likely to be very different to that of the bilingually fluent child of a French banker born and raised in London.

More specifically, they suggested four strands of promising evidence which we highlighted for those considering applying to our EAL funding round – language oriented interventions; literacy oriented interventions; teacher professional development; and family literacy interventions – helping them to focus their proposals on those areas the research suggests are most likely to improve attainment.

Commissioning a literature review is, therefore, our signal that this is an area where we think there may be an opportunity to build on the existing evidence base – and extend it – by funding independent evaluations of promising projects in order to improve our understanding of ‘what works’ in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

Careers education; improving outcomes and employment prospects for 16-18 year olds who have failed to achieve the expected C grade level in English and mathematics at GCSE; science education (in partnership with the Royal Society): these are three areas where we think there could be potential for new trials in schools and colleges to yield valuable insights which will help break the link between family income and education attainment.

The literature reviews should, we hope, give us a solid basis on which to begin our work of identifying, testing, and then scaling those approaches and programmes with the best chance of making a real and enduring difference.