• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 06th January, 2010

Politicians might do worse than get Better

With a UK General Election in the offing, and education policy looking like becoming one of the campaign "footballs", York University's Institute for Effective Education is making a timely bid to be appointed referee.Under the directorship of American academic Robert Slavin, the Institute has consolidated a partnership between the UK research community and School of Education at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, where he is also director of the Centre for Research and Reform in Education.Slavin's Baltimore home is the birthplace of the online Best Evidence Encyclopedia or BEE, and both partners are involved in publishing the evidence-based education magazine Better, where analysis of the emerging politics of the British education is just published.No more so than in an election year, writes Better's UK editor, Jonathan Haslam, evidence-based policy runs the risk of being overtaken by policy-based evidence."Where politicians have deeply held beliefs about what is effective, it can be tempting to want to cherry pick the evidence that supports those beliefs,” he writes.The focus of his discussion is the promise by both major parties to allow school more autonomy, at the same time as making them more accountable locally. Haslam quotes Conservative opposition education spokesman Michael Gove. “We need to create a virtuous dynamic in education where parents in the state sector exercise the sort of power and control currently enjoyed by those in the private sector – so all children can have access to the excellence currently restricted to too few.”Haslam also points to a call from the Conservative party think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, for a "bonfire of the quangos" to do away, for example, with the QCDA (Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency) and to give schools more control of the curriculum, training budgets, IT projects and salaries.After summarizing the equivalent Labour government white paper proposals to engineer “a significant devolution of power and responsibility to our school leaders, matched by strengthened school accountability” alongside protestations from both camps of a commitment to the principles of evidence-based education, Haslam goes on to ask:“Where is the evidence that these proposals will improve outcomes for children and to what extent will schools be able to use evidence-based education?”As an example of potential confusions to come, he considers Conservative confidence in the value of "setting" by ability in secondary schools – when Robert Slavin's best evidence synthesis has shown that it has no beneficial effect, and that in the "crucial" 11-14 age range, it is notably unproductive.“Delivering evidence-based policy is challenging for politicians,” Haslam observes. “If there is little evidence that a new idea is likely to be effective, it can take a long time for a study to provide that evidence, which somewhat dents the impact of an exciting initiative.” From his and Better's perspective, all tends to support the case for an independent agency with the capacity to digest all the available evidence. “If there is to be more local accountability, then schools need impartial information on the practices and programs that have been found to work.”No surprises as far as his recommendation is concerned: “The Institute for Effective Education is working with researchers, policymakers and practitioners to try and bring this about,” he says. “We want to provide a one-stop shop, where policymakers and practitioners can find out the evidence on particular questions, in order to guide their practice. This would provide an independent voice that could clarify where there is evidence of what works, and where there is none.”The latest edition of Better focuses on math teaching strategies and includes articles about the wider field of problem solving. The vexed subject of social and emotional learning comes next.

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