Evidence in education

One of the first principles taught in science is how to form and test a hypothesis through experimentation and evaluation. Great importance is quite rightly placed on gathering evidence effectively, analysing it objectively and applying it to the question one is trying to answer.

Yet when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of the myriad choices made in the field of education – class size, teaching style, peer tutoring and homework to name but a few – the evidence often goes unsought or, worse, ignored.

Professor Robert Coe of Durham University argues that “many educators are lovers of novelty; it is a great strength and weakness”.  As a consequence individual schools invest huge sums of money and time in implementing new ideas, from performance-related pay for teachers to iPads for all students.  Decisions are often born from a desire to be seen to be doing something to address a problem or to gain a perceived advantage, when the evidence base for them may be superficial or anecdotal.  New ideas are piloted too quickly and rolled out before a thorough evaluation has occurred, only for the National Audit Office or a parliamentary select committee to subsequently question their value for money.

In his excellent lecture ‘Improving Education: a triumph of hope over experience’, Coe examines educational innovations and concludes that some bring genuine improvement, some lead to deterioration, many make no difference at all and, in most cases, the effect of an innovation is simply not reliably known.  As Coe concludes “education existed in a pre-scientific world, where good measurement of anything important was rare and evaluation was done badly or not at all.  It is time we established a more scientific approach”.

Departments like Durham’s play a hugely valuable role in the evaluation of education programmes and processes, yet face an uncertain future in Michael Gove’s vision of a system where more teachers are trained on the job rather than in university.  It is vital that we preserve this source of education evidence.

The government doesn’t licence new pharmaceutical treatments without thorough and comprehensive reviews of the evidence to establish proven efficacy and safety.  It is time-consuming but essential research as human lives depend on it and there are vast sums of public money involved. Before we turn modular A levels into linear A levels, before we remove course work from the curriculum, before we create more free schools and before we announce £600 million a year for free school meals it would be good to know that objective evidence supported such moves as proven routes for raising educational attainment, as claimed.  Education is too important not to be evidence based.

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