Financial literacy is not just about maths: why PISA should rethink its test

Ian Marcouse

One mis-selling scandal after another has highlighted how bad adults are at managing their own financial resources. They trust the wrong people and believe in the wrong advice. The ease with which payday lenders found customers shows the difficulty people have with APR (annual percentage rate) figures. Even taking out a current account is fraught with risk. For young people about to stack up a huge amount of debt at university, financial literacy is vital, if only to avoid their parents’ mistakes.

The UK Government sought to tackle the issue last year by announcing that financial literacy would become a compulsory part of England’s national curriculum – included both in mathematics and citizenship classes. This covers about half the state schools in the country – with academies and free schools allowed to opt out.

Unfortunately, new findings from the OECD suggest that there is virtually no correlation between the amount of time spent teaching financial literacy in classrooms and students’ ability to answer questions on the subject. Nor did it matter much whether financial literacy was taught by teachers of mathematics, economics/business or social sciences.

But could their analysis be misleading?

The OECD’s PISA programme administered a two-hour test to half a million students from 16 countries to try to assess young people’s financial literacy. These countries included the US and China, but not the UK.

The report, published this month, showed a very high correlation between PISA results for mathematics and those for financial literacy. Consequently China (Shanghai) came top by a large margin, while the USA performed below the 16-country average. Bottom came Colombia. According to the PISA findings the most important factor by far was how well the respondents had been taught mathematics.

But these results were not surprising, as the questions were strongly weighted towards numeracy (such as checking the accuracy of an invoice). An alternative explanation might be that this weighting made the correlation with maths results inevitable. If the questions had been focused on a critical approach to financial issues and products, the results may have been different.

The research looked at many variables that might determine student performance at financial literacy. It concluded that the amount of time spent teaching financial literacy had no effect. For example teachers in the United States spend a particularly long time on the topic – to no discernable benefit on test results. Furthermore the quantity of teacher training had little impact on the results. On average about half of all teachers of financial literacy had received some training on the subject – but to no avail. (The quality of the teacher training was not assessed.)

Other variables that proved unimportant included country GDP per capita, gender and social background. More important was direct experience: those with a bank account came out with higher scores than those without.

Specifically the PISA report says, in answer to the question: “What can be done to enhance financial literacy?”

  • Having a bank account is a better predictor of financial literacy than anything you do in the classroom.
  • Teaching financial literacy is a poor predictor of success at financial literacy in these tests
  • Where financial literacy is taught as a separate subject (such as the USA) performance is not strong.
  • Volume of exposure to financial education has no correlation with performance on the tests

From PISA’s viewpoint the findings are clear: teach mathematics in a more conceptual, abstract manner (as in Shanghai) and students will be in a better position to apply their understanding to real contexts. The question remains: is the extremely high correlation between maths and financial literacy simply a result of the construction of the tests? If so, policy makers should take great care about drawing conclusions from PISA’s exercise.

What was the purpose behind such a numerically-driven series of questions? There are many other factors in financial literacy, such as questions about past problems and scandals (Bernard Madoff; Charles Ponzi) plus the pyramid schemes that young adults can often be caught up in. There is the fundamental problem of asymmetric information, in which the seller of financial products knows so much more than the buyer. These issues were not addressed.

This leaves two possibilities: either teaching financial literacy is a waste of time (the PISA conclusion) or perhaps PISA did thorough research based on the wrong questions. In 2015 they will repeat the exercise (and may include Britain this time). Let us hope they think hard about whether they want to repeat the questions.

 

Nicky Morgan: time to read and reflect, consolidate and build consensus

Chris Husbands

There are two sorts of politician. There are those who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they are doing that they think that everyone essentially agrees with them, and enthusiastically build a large coalition to get things done. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not against me is for me. And there are politicians who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they believe that they will fight anyone and everyone who disagrees, however insignificantly. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not for me is against me.

Michael Gove was passionate about education, and looked for enemies who did not share his fundamental beliefs. Over four years, he took on major policy area after major policy area: school governance, school accountability, teacher education and development, curriculum, assessment, school funding, and so on and so on. The complaint of headteacher unions was frequently that he should slow the pace, introduce no more change, allow things to bed down. But this was to miss the point: for Michael Gove, energetic and rapid change was the essence of what he wanted to achieve, and a diminishing band of enthusiastic supporters egged him on.

My guess is that the instruction from the Prime Minister to Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s successor, is indeed to calm things down. One in ten female voters – a key demographic for the Conservative party – work in education. News stories of confusion and demoralisation play badly for any workforce and the stakes are too high. So the premium over the next year will be not on policy change but on messaging – on seeking to manage and administer a radically changed education system.

One of the great ironies of Michael Gove’s time as secretary of state is that over substantial tranches of policy he introduced changes for which there was, or could have been, professional support: most teachers have been trained to teach reasonably traditional school subjects; most teachers want to work in classrooms where their own classroom management is unquestioned; most teachers want to take responsibility for innovation and development. But a secretary of state who slimmed down the national curriculum to a more tightly defined academic core, who placed the EBacc at the core of the accountability system, who strengthened guidance on behaviour management and who believed in school autonomy ends as perhaps the most unpopular and derided secretary of state in modern times. Research on system reform is explicit: ultimately, school systems can only be improved by consent, by engaging and supporting teachers in change.

So the key tasks for Nicky Morgan are clear: first, to take the heat out of contentious policy implementation by building bridges to the profession. Of course, Michael Gove was always lavish in his praise of successful school leaders. But the suspicion was always there that these successful school leaders were being singled out because he believed they were the exceptions, not because they were typical of the majority. Ultimately, any chief executive has to believe in the workforce and its capacity to deliver. Nicky Morgan needs to look for allies, not enemies.

Secondly, she will need to use the resources of the Department for Education quietly and inconspicuously to defuse some of the policy confusions that have arisen as (to mix a metaphor) the tectonic plates of education have been tossed into the air. The accountability of free schools; the relationships between academies and local authorities (who retain over two hundred statutory powers in respect of education); the tenuous hold the DfE now has on teacher supply; the difficulties about school place planning in a world where free-school ‘demand’ has replaced local authority supply planning; uncertainties about teaching as a profession given the deregulatory approach of the last four years.

Thirdly, she needs to look outward. The Gove rhetoric was of a failing school system with some bright lights; the OFSTED evidence is of a largely effective school system, in which the great majority of schools are at least good. The big challenges are about the capacity of schools to grapple with huge changes: the long-term impact of technology on education; the role of schools in community and social cohesion; the role of the school in an increasingly unequal society; the challenge of securing both high levels of excellence and high equity; the role of education as a preparation for work at a time of phenomenal change in labour markets; the continuing challenge of literacy and numeracy amongst the lowest attaining 20 per cent of young people.

These challenges are not confined to England – they face education systems across the world. Some are doing better and more effectively in respect of some of the challenges, but none – as any academic or policy researcher will confirm – are meeting all of them.   Almost all of those involved in education think about them, and there are creative contributions from dissenting voices – they can all be listened to.

Nicky Morgan has two huge advantages. The first is that almost whatever the secretary of state does, children arrive at school and teachers teach them: the system goes on working irrespective of government changes. This means that her own interventions can be judicious and thoughtful rather than impulsive. The second is that, curiously enough for someone starting a new job, she has arrived just as most of the workers and clients disappear for their summer break, so she has time to read, talk and think before the new school year.

But then she faces an enormous challenge, because from the first day back in September – everyone will be watching.

How music-making helps people ‘love later life’

Andrea Creech

Age UK has launched a high profile campaign, challenging us to think aboutA how to love later life. Music-making offers a creative and cost-effective response to this challenge.

This view is articulated in our new book, Active Ageing with MusicA, through the voices of later-life community music-makers and supported by a wealth of evidence making a compelling case for the power of music in the lives of older adults. There are currently 10 million people in the UK aged over 65 and that number is forecast to double by 2050.

This extraordinary demographic transition, where we have seen a remarkable increase in the over-nineties, centenarians and even super-centenarians, is a triumph of public health policy and practice, yet also poses one of the major social challenges of the 21st century. As the Director of Age UK has stated, there is a pressing need for creative thinking about how we can help people make the most of a longer later life.

So, what might be so special about music-making in later life? One explanation relates to its holistic nature. In addition to influencing positive mental and physical health, music-making provides a context that promotes independence, personal development and self-expression alongside fellowship and intergenerational solidarity. As one music-maker (aged 80) is quoted: “Music benefits everybody, because of its beauty … It is an uplifting experience. I can’t imagine a life without music … It fulfils a need.” Yet, there is still much to be done before access to the full potential of musical participation might be a reality for our older citizens.

For example, apart from some very valuable practice and research with older people afflicted with dementia and some other age-related conditions, there has been little research that explores fully how music-making may be exploited within a range of community and institutional settings that reach the most vulnerable and frail of our older people. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that musical activities could act as a pathway to sustained or enhanced wellbeing. But   provision must be of a high quality, responding to the diverse needs amongst older cohorts. To this end, there is a need for sustainable professional development and partnership working for musicians and other organisations with a stake in activities for older people. Age UK has laid down the challenge. As we prepare for old age and support our families, friends, and wider community members who have reached the Third and Fourth Ages, we need to find ways to ‘love later life’. Music-making does exactly this, with its potential to reach diverse groups amongst older people, supporting active ageing and touching individual lives in powerful ways.

Déjà vu all over again: the endless loop of education policy

Chris Husbands

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, has begun to flesh out details of policy implementation should Labour win the next election. Speaking to Andrew Marr last weekend, he outlined a plan for ‘super teachers’, a new grade of ‘master teacher’.

This would be a new career pathway because, he said, “at the moment too many good teachers are moving out of the classroom and becoming heads”. It’s likely that the next Labour government will “create a new grade of teachers to recognise the best”. The difficulty, however, is that the second quotation is not from Mr Hunt but from the 1997 Labour manifesto, and that the manifesto proposal did, indeed, bear fruit: advanced skills teachers (ASTs) were introduced in 1998.

Advanced skills teachers were intended to support other teachers who were struggling in the classroom, to provide advice on pedagogy, to teach model lessons and to lead the professional development of new and existing teachers in both their own and other schools. Twenty per cent of AST time was meant to be spent on outreach.

As with the Hunt proposal, the intention was to open a career – and reward – route which did not make excellent teachers leave the classroom in order to get ahead. Over the next 13 years, some 4,000 ASTs were designated across the school system – or about one for every five schools.

In 2010, Andy Goodwin and a team from Reading University surveyed their impact. They found that ASTs were “highly motivated” and “talented” teachers, but the “definition and expectation of the role [was]… clearly highly variable and dependent, in large part, on school… priorities as well as the attitudes of the headteacher”.

AST designation fell with the last government in 2010, but in 2011, Dame Sally Coates’s review of teacher standards proposed the development of a new ’master teacher’ designation, again based on outstanding classroom teaching. But this time – and this reflected a finding in the Goodwin review – with a stronger and more explicit focus on subject knowledge. At the time, the proposals were not widely welcomed, since (unlike the AST proposals) they did not come with any dedicated funding, and certainly for some unions, the designation ’master teacher’ was felt to be anachronistic in a largely feminised profession.

There is a debate to be had about how, and how successfully government can introduce a new career grade in a devolved and largely autonomous school system. It has been done – apparently successfully – in Singapore, as Hunt pointed out. But that’s not the main point of this blog post. The point is that we have been here before – twice – in 1998 and 2011. On each occasion, there have been proposals, more or less carefully worked through, to introduce a career grade for highly accomplished teachers.

It would be good to think that policy development might draw on recent experience. And if this blog has some fun at the expense of Tristram Hunt, the same applies to his political opponent. Just a fortnight ago, the Secretary of State began a move towards a more explicit curriculum focus on ‘British values’ without appearing to draw at all on the experiences of either the John Major government or the Blair government in developing a civic focus in the school curriculum.

It would be good to have better informed politicians. It would also be good, however, to have a better education policy process. One of the most engaging reads of this year has been Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s study The Blunders of Our Governments in which they analyse in careful detail major, expensive and, normally, unnecessary policy errors. In every case, there was an implied cry somewhere in the policy that “this time it’s different”. It rarely is.

 

Reading Recovery: deprived 11-year-olds don’t have to face a bleak future

Julia Douëtil

The latest paper from the Education Endowment Foundation highlights the 25% of 11-year-olds in poverty each year who fail to reach national curriculum level 4, and the devastating impact that is likely to have on each of those children’s future. What if we could reduce that 25% failure rate to, say 7% – in other words, recover three out of four of those potential failures?

The good news is we can.

In 2012 we traced more than 1200 children who, at the age of six, had been identified as being in the very lowest attaining 20% of the age cohort and who had received Reading Recovery to enable them to catch up with their peers. Those children had just completed Key Stage 2 National Assessments and three out of four of them had achieved national curriculum level 4 in reading, and two out of three in writing (page 32).

In the EEF report, Professor Steve Higgins and his Durham University colleagues demonstrate the gap in attainment for children in poverty, and we see the same at entry to Reading Recovery: children entitled to free school meals are typically twice as likely to be among the lowest attaining identified for the programme at age six. At age 11, the gap between those in poverty and their peers attaining National Curriculum Level 4 had reduced to just 7%. At National Curriculum Level 3 the gap was just over 1% as 19 out of 20 of the previously lowest attaining children, those most likely to fail to reach level 3, reached level 3 or above.

The EEF report shows a grudging respect for one-to-one support over group teaching, but the evidence for intensive, high quality early intervention is compelling.

I would go further. If support offered to the lowest attaining six-year-olds is not enabling them to make four or five times the normal rate of progress, to catch up and stay caught up with their peers, we are not trying hard enough.

 

When the national curriculum is not compulsory we need to keep presenting the case for Holocaust education

Andy Pearce

As First World War centenary commemorations become entangled with 70th anniversaries of the Second, it is worth reflecting on the words of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti: “Forgetfulness is full of memory”. And the idea that the converse may be true has a particular salience given current trends in contemporary Britain.

We know how the ‘present pasts’ we surround ourselves with are expressions of our politics and preoccupations, and that education systems act as essential conduits in the formation of our collective memory. This is not news to most, and if one needed any reminding, the second round of the ‘battle for the big prize’ which broke out over the recently revised National Curriculum for History was instructive. It was out of the wrangling of 1989-1991 that the Holocaust became a mandatory requirement in England and Wales.

This was a major landmark in the history of our national Holocaust consciousness, laying a foundation for the institutionalisation of cultural memory of the genocide of European Jewry. Since then, the Holocaust has been one of the only constants in the history curriculum and this has undoubtedly been one of the reasons behind its pervasive presence in early 21st Century British culture.

But this development has not followed a progressive, upward trajectory. The incorporation of the Holocaust into the History curriculum has long been undermined by a lack of clarity of purpose and rationale – by both policymakers and teachers. This shortcoming has left teaching and learning open to politicisation and susceptible to cultural fads. In some ways this has tracked what has happened in society more widely, where since the turn of the millennium the Holocaust has been increasingly abstracted and decontextualized: a talisman to which all manner of meanings are affixed by all and sundry.

Fourteen years have passed since the process of institutionalising Holocaust memory was completed by the opening of the Imperial War Museum’s permanent exhibition and the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet the shapes and hues of our Holocaust consciousness remain contradictory and paradoxical. The incoming Programme of Study for Key Stage 3 History provides an excellent example of this. After an initial framing of the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil’ was rightly dropped, the genocide is now the only compulsory event named under the rubric of “challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. Incredibly, given the suffusion of our culture by war commemoration, the First and Second World Wars appear simply as non-statutory content.

However welcome the retention of the Holocaust in the curriculum may be, its positioning raises the real prospect of perpetuating its cultural abstraction. Context, as any historian and history teacher knows, is key and the potential for the Holocaust to be taught without it carries severe implications. It is even more pernicious that because the National Curriculum is not compulsory for academies and free schools, there is no guarantee that students will even encounter the Holocaust within formal education.

Classrooms are not the only places where knowledge and understanding of the past are formulated, of course. But schools are settings where misconceptions can be corrected and inquisitive and critical mind-sets nurtured. Bearing in mind how diffuse the Holocaust is in our society, and the proclivity towards its misrepresentation, it would seem imperative that it feature in all school curricula.

To say that the Holocaust should be taught is not enough: there still needs to be clarity of aim and sound pedagogical purpose. Over the past 20 years an orthodoxy has emerged, with the presumption that education will give students ‘the facts’ to combat Holocaust denial and develop a life-long commitment to ‘never forget’.

These are laudable and worthy intentions, but they are not without complications. As Paulo Friere observed, the constructed nature of knowledge presses against the idea that knowledge is an inert entity that is simply transmitted from teacher to student. In the case of history, substantive knowledge requires conceptual, disciplinary frameworks. Remembering – that is, remembrance tuned in the key of memorialisation – is not something which sits easily with the nature of historical enquiry and independent thinking. Nor, returning to Benedetti, does it prevent forgetting.

Despite the terms of the new National Curriculum and the creation of a Holocaust Commission charged with ‘keeping the memory alive’, the academisation of our education system has created a marketplace where a sophisticated and informed case for teaching and learning about the Holocaust must be made. The Holocaust should be a fixture in our students’ education for a host of reasons, not least because of its capacity to open up those most perennial of questions: just what is education, and what do we want education to do?

Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain by Andy Pearce has just been published by Routledge. All are welcome to attend the book launch today (July 3) at the IOE.

Science and mathematics education for 2030: vision or dream?

Michael J Reiss

After three years of work and nine commissioned reports, the Royal Society has published its vision for science and mathematics education. It may not push Luis Suarez or Andy Coulson off the front pages but this is a most impressive document that deserves to have a major and long-lasting impact on UK science and mathematics education policy.

The committee that produced the report features a list of intellectual and society heavyweights – if you don’t have a knighthood, a dameship or a Nobel Prize or you aren’t a Fellow of the Royal Society, that may explain why you weren’t invited to sit on it. Behind these titles sits a huge amount of expertise and very considerable passion to improve education.

The Vision aims to raise the general level of mathematical and scientific knowledge and confidence in the population by focusing on changes to how science and mathematics are taught to 5- to 18-year-olds. Some of its recommendations are already taking place, at least to some extent – for instance, that teachers should be trained to engage fully with digital technologies – but others are more contentious.

For example, the report calls for a move away from the current A level system to a Baccalaureate. Such a move would benefit not only science and mathematics but other subjects too. However, I won’t hold my breath to see if it happens – and it will certainly require a change of government. People have been calling for A levels to be replaced by a system with less early specialism for longer than I can remember.

The report also calls for the establishment of new, independent, expert bodies to provide stability in curriculum and assessment and allow teachers space to innovate in their teaching. Following the bonfire of the quangos after the last General Election, the need for such bodies has become clearer than ever. But who is to pay for them? This is not a report overburdened by economic analysis (there isn’t any). Perhaps the Royal Society and other funders need to step in and establish something akin to the successful Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which manages to be independent yet shapes national policy and practice.

Science and mathematics education are in a fortunate position in the UK, compared to many other subjects. Industry clamours for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates and technicians and the UK is an acknowledged world leader in STEM research. A decade ago, work by David Sainsbury, Alan Wilson, John Holman, Celia Hoyles and others helped turn around a long-running decline in the numbers of 16-year-olds choosing A levels in mathematics and the physical sciences. Let’s hope this report takes those successes to the next level.

London’s 300 languages are a boon for all the capital’s children

Catherine Wallace

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, has hit the headlines again, this time with the suggestion that schools should be able to fine parents if they don’t read to their children. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea: it’s unenforceable, and would tend to penalise families who are already struggling financially, for example. But also, it fails to recognise the many ways that families practice literacy in their homes and communities.

I’ve been studying migrant children in London schools whose first language is not English, and what comes through in these pupils’ narratives is the various ways that literacy is embedded in their home lives. This can involve reading with siblings, teaching English to grandparents or newly-arrived relatives, writing stories that are never revealed to the teacher, and, of course, religious lessons at Mosques or Gurdwaras.

In today’s target-oriented classrooms, there is little space to acknowledge culturally variable ways of learning, and little awareness that socialisation into literacy may not follow the prescribed path of bedtime story reading or parent and child sitting together with a book. And while migrant children may not possess the same sort of cultural capital enjoyed by their middle class peers, they have another, valuable, type of cultural capital that is much less well-recognised.

The ability to think and speak in more than one language and to operate across several cultures allows them to see the world from a perspective that has the potential to enrich learning for them and their classmates. Yet, in schools, as in society, having English as an additional language is sometimes seen as a deficit.

And while English is the goal, since parents and pupils want this, this need not mean an English only classroom.

I studied two groups of children: new arrivals and settled migrants (who make up the majority of second-language learners in London’s classrooms). Two children from the first group were Zara – a refugee from Somalia – and Mohan – who came from Afghanistan and lived for some years in France. Although their English is less proficient than the “advanced bilingual learners” from the second group, they come with a valuable set of resources:

  • Their mother tongues are well established, so that they can more readily serve as a resource. Mohan’s home is multilingual – four languages are spoken and he himself actively uses three in daily life: French to his siblings, English at school, and Pashto to his parents.
  • Some of the pupils have a strong formal educational background and may feel confident in particular subject areas, such as maths.
  • Most are literate in their first language – and first language proficiency in literacy is widely accepted as a strong predictor for successful acquisition of good literacy in English.

Despite these apparent advantages, the pupils’ languages other than English receive scant acknowledgement at school, although Mohan has the advantage that French is his dominant language. There is a clear hierarchy of languages in our schools and society, and Western European languages such as French and German remain at the top.

More than 300 languages are spoken in London’s schools, offering a wealth of knowledge, new perspectives and cultural riches to all of London’s children. Surely this cumulative bounty has contributed to the success of London’s schools. This week’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the IOE suggests that London’s multi-ethnic mix could be one reason why the city’s deprived children get better academic results than those in other parts of the country. The benefits brought by bilingualism must be a contributing factor.

London as a global city is ideally placed to spearhead an era of new opportunities for cultural and linguistic exchange in our schools. And yet, while the statistics tell an encouraging story of the positive impact of migration and diversity, the picture is still mixed. Overall, the group of young people I studied is doing well, but it is in many ways a success story against the odds.

Professor Catherine Wallace’s lecture on EAL pupils in London Schools, being given on 26 June, is available from IOE Press

TALIS: A complex and realistic picture of teachers and teaching around the world

Chris Husbands 

What do we really know about teaching and teachers in England’s schools? What is teaching in England really like by comparison with other jurisdictions? Too often, discussions about teacher effectiveness, teacher appraisal, professional development and job satisfaction appear to be based on a sample of about one: massive over-generalisation from the specific instance.

So the publication of the OECD TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) 2013 data for England is important. This is not the first TALIS – that was in 2008 – but the first to include England. TALIS covers lower secondary teachers in 34 countries, and the OECD reports its findings over 440 pages of dense text and charts. The English report, itself 200 pages long, was written by an IOE team led by John Micklewright and provides the most extensive data we have on teachers and teaching. The sample is still not enormous – 154 schools and 2,496 lower secondary teachers – but the response rate was very high (75% compared to just 17% in the DFE Teachers’ Workload Diary) and, importantly, this is the first survey to cover both state and independent schools.

Micklewright and his team deliberately do not come to an overall conclusion on what TALIS tells us about the state of secondary teaching in England. They try to tease out what the data say about different issues, framed as a set of questions – but it is for the reader to draw conclusions.

The result is fascinating: a treasure trove of data and graphs, which allow us to make informed comparisons across the OECD. Politicians and the press always ransack reports like this for the simple answer which tells us that “if only” we were more like [fill in name of organization or country] then everything would be different. But the TALIS report is more complex and realistic. There are differences between countries, but they evade easy generalization.

Take teacher workload: TALIS confirms that teachers in England work hard: a working week of 46 hours, one of the highest in TALIS and 9 hours more than the average. In only three of the sub-sample of high performing jurisdictions is the figure higher: Alberta (48 hours), Singapore (48 hours) and Japan (54 hours). But teaching time in England, at 20 hours, is close to the international average. This gap between working hours and teaching is a puzzle because English schools have significantly more teaching assistants and administrative staff than across the OECD. But it may be a result of high levels of autonomy enjoyed by English schools; examination of the TALIS data bears this out, suggesting that the difference is because English teachers spend slightly more time on each aspect of their work: planning, marking, and administration.

Or take classroom management. Across all OECD countries, a quarter of teachers report losing a third or more of time to classroom disruption. But in most respects England is at or better than the TALIS average. 21% of teachers in England say they have to wait for students to quieten down at the start of lessons, but this is below the median for all countries (27%) and below all high performing jurisdictions except Japan. Teachers in independent schools report better behavior than teachers in maintained schools or academies, but of course independent schools teach a more socially selective population.

Micklewright’s team look carefully at variations between schools, and conclude that classroom climate is correlated with the make-up of the school intake, and, more, of individual classes. And, there is evidence that disciplinary environment improves in smaller classes – of course, smaller classes are preponderantly found in independent schools. Even so, two thirds of teachers report a positive classroom climate. It’s in these classes that teachers are likely to use a variety of approaches including group work, extended investigation and information technologies. Teachers are more likely to teach like this if they participate in professional development involving individual and collaborative research, visits to other schools or teacher networks. Or consider findings on continuing professional development. Overall, there is exceptionally high engagement with CPD in England: 92% report some CPD in the last twelve months, but the number of hours spent on training is relatively low: high participation, low volume. And for all the rhetoric that continuing professional development is not simply about ‘going on a course’, courses and workshops account for the vast majority of CPD; just 45% of English teachers reported CPD involving ‘working with a group of colleagues’.

There are some insights into CPD quality, which tell us that CPD on the most challenging aspects of teaching is the least effective. Across TALIS, just 13% reported that training on teaching in multi-cultural or multi-lingual settings had an impact on their teaching; the figure was 8% in England. Figures on SEN training are similar.

But there are reasons to be positive about what CPD can do: across the OECD as a whole 66% of teachers thought that subject-focused CPD had an impact, and 50% thought that  CPD focused on pedagogy had an impact. The figures varied between countries. Both were lower in England, and higher in the nine highest performing jurisdictions – but before that becomes a policy line, we note that 73% of teachers in the eight lowest performing jurisdictions also reported a positive impact from CPD in their subject! Teachers in schools with higher levels of deprivation were more positive about the impact of CPD. Taken as whole, the OECD claim a correlation between regular collaborative professional learning activities and teachers feeling more confident about their capabilities.

TALIS suggests that England has a near universal system of teacher appraisal. Compared to the OECD as a whole, Micklewright’s team characterizes England as a “high feedback country”: 99% of teachers report receiving feedback. But schools are not making the most of it. Only about half of teachers (and this is a consistent figure across the OECD) felt that feedback enhanced efficacy.

It’s on self-efficacy – teachers’ beliefs about their ability to influence learning – that the English report concludes. There are variations between teachers’ sense of their effectiveness. But variation within schools is much greater than that between schools. Teams and departments matter. There is no difference between independent and state-funded schools, nor between affluent and deprived schools. Instead, the IOE team conclude that self-efficacy is highest when teachers report strong professional relationships, but they conclude that causality is unclear: it may be that teachers with high self-efficacy build good relationships, or, by working in teams with good relationships teachers become more confident.

It’s this puzzle, like so many others, which the report for England is so good at illuminating. It offers immense detail, but never at the expense of the underlying key questions. It challenges practice and policy on the basis of rigorous analysis, which is what really good research should do. It is balanced between strengths and weaknesses and clear-headed about international comparisons. It will be reduced, and perhaps traduced, in press headlines, but deserves serious research and policy attention on how we can best shape the teaching profession.

TAs: only a research-policy-practice trialogue will lead to evidence-based policy-making

Rob Webster

The economists are at it again!

This time last year, the Reform think tank outlined cost-saving measures that, it claimed, could be made without damaging pupils’ education. Chief among them was cutting the number of teaching assistants (TAs) in schools.

The rationale was based on findings from our Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project, which found that children who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support – even after controlling for factors like prior attainment and level of special educational need (SEN).

Thankfully, the recommendation to axe TAs got short shrift from the DfE. Not so fortunate the elementary school system in North Carolina, USA.

Last month, the state Senate proposed a $21.2 billion budget plan, $470 million of which will pay for an average 11% pay rise for teachers. Half the funds for this, however, will come from cutting the equivalent of 7,400 TA jobs – all but eliminating TAs in second and third grades (7-9 years).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision – expected to be ratified by lawmakers by 30 June – has sparked petitions and protests. A local educationalist likened the situation to paying for a liver transplant by selling a kidney!

The context for the controversy is on-going attempts by politicians to improve educational standards in North Carolina. Echoing the conclusions of the Reform report, State Senate leader Phil Berger said achieving this is about using research evidence to prioritise resources: ‘to target our dollars to those things that are shown to improve student growth’. For Berger, this means making teaching financially more appealing in a state where attracting and retaining high quality teachers has been a perennial problem.

Reliance on the inconclusive research evidence on the effect of teacher pay on educational standards to inform policy is worrying. So to hear too that, with an eerie sense of déjà-vu, it turns out a partial reading of the DISS project findings has also been used to justify the proposals, should raise questions about politicians’ use of empirical research and their proclaimed fondness for evidence-based policy.

It cannot be avoided that high amounts of TA support has unintended consequences for pupils, especially for those with SEN, but our research is very clear about the reasons. It is decisions made by school leaders and teachers about – not by – TAs, in terms of their deployment and preparation that best explain the DISS results. This vital message seems to have bypassed state legislators.

As my colleagues and I never tire pointing out, the DISS results do not suggest that getting rid of TAs will improve outcomes, if all other factors remain equal; if anything, it will create more problems.

Teachers in North Carolina may be about to see their salaries increase and – as Berger and others in the Senate acknowledge – their jobs transform, but with no additional teachers coming into the system, plans to reduce class sizes dropped, no proposals to ensure teachers are not overworked or receive training to help them work with children with special needs, they will earn every single dollar.

For all the talk of basing policy decisions on research evidence, the situation in North Carolina is another example of the kind of poorly planned and expensive experiments with pupils’ learning and adults’ careers and well-being that are becoming worryingly commonplace in public education systems the world over.

These revelations from across the Atlantic should be troubling for the research community too. Just recently Louise Stoll and Chris Brown wrote on this blog about collaborative models of knowledge exchange in education: efforts to translate and transfer research findings into practical tools and strategies for practitioners.

A team of us at the IOE are currently developing our own model of knowledge mobilisation based on the work we’ve undertaken with schools on our Maximising the Impact of TAs programme.

Our experience has been that these two-way efforts between schools and universities can be extremely fruitful and mutually beneficial to the processes of teaching and research. Yet the essential need for policymakers to be involved in the process of converting knowledge into policy and practice is writ large over the events in North Carolina.

Selective readings and misrepresentations of research evidence by detached decision-makers of findings from hard won (often taxpayer-funded) empirical research, which is dependent on co-operation with and contributions from busy practitioners working in high-pressure environments, poses a threat to the trust between researchers and educators that underpins collaborative research and development – not to mention the relationship that each group has with the public.

Only recently has the UK Government clarified its somewhat ‘hands-off’ position on TAs. Whilst there is obvious appeal in giving school leaders autonomy to make their own staffing decisions, given the vast sums of public money involved in employing TAs and the high stakes nature of education generally, it seems a rather relaxed approach.

Our emerging model of knowledge mobilisation recognises the essential need for policymakers’ participation in turning the research-practice dialogue, into a research-policy-practice trialogue. Their willingness to engage would be a clear commitment to their much-vaunted faith in evidence-informed policy and practice.

 

Rob Webster is a research associate at the Institute of Education and freelance consultant/trainer. He is grateful to Andy Curliss of The News & Observer, North Carolina, for bringing this story to his attention.