Evidence-Based Education: Who should be doing what?

Who should be doing what

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By Dr Gary Jones

Being a teacher is hard enough, without spending unnecessary amounts of time on practices that just don’t make any real kind of an impact.  It’s not enough for an intervention or practice to have merit, it needs to be ‘worth it’.

Focus on the use of research evidence within schools is on the increase. So how can we make sure that our approach to using evidence has the impact we want it to, and that the use of evidence is supported at all levels within the education eco-system?

In this post, and drawing upon my recently published book, Evidence-Based School Leadership: A practical guide I examine how different roles can make a contribution to evidence-based practice within schools.

School leaders

Headteachers, executive heads and multi-academy trust chief executive officers have an absolutely critical role in implementing and supporting evidence-based practice within schools.

Without school leaders’ full commitment and engagement to fully embed evidence-based practice within the decision-making processes of schools school, evidence-based education will be seen as nothing more than the latest fad. Unless school leaders have a real and lasting commitment to ‘genuine inquiry’ (Le Fevre, Robinson, et al, 2015) - and openness of mind to get past both the immediate and possibly superficial, then it’s probably best not even to pay lip service to the notion of being an evidence-based school.

Researchers

Researchers can learn a great deal from other related fields such as, evidence-based health-care, evidence-based nursing, evidence-based social work and knowledge mobilisation.

Many of the problems faced in education in trying to close the ‘research-practice’ gap have been experienced elsewhere, and promising strategies and innovations have been developed. Evidence-based education has much to learn from both improvement and implementation sciences.

There is much to be learnt from approaches such as ‘realistic evaluation’ which takes into account the interaction between the context and the intervention when conducting evaluations. As such, when conducting ‘trials’ there needs to be a move away from an over-reliance on randomized controlled trials.

Research funders

In 2017, the Education Endowment Foundation published the results of a number of interventions where the outcomes could be described as disappointing (Murphy, Weinhardt, et al, 2017, and Worth, Sizmur, et al, 2017).  

  1. Research funders need to insist that the logic models/frameworks which inform any research proposals are thoroughly ‘stress-tested’ and in doing so, become robust theories of change, with assumptions and the conditions for success fully-explored.
  2. Having created a robust theory of change a risk-management strategy should be created which identifies mitigating actions which could or should be taken.

Providers of professional development training

Development training programmes for aspiring and current leaders need to do more than promote the latest managerial or pedagogic fads. They should help leaders develop the skills to be able to distinguish between innovations which have realistic chances of bringing about improvement in schools and those innovations which are little more than ‘snake-oil.’

It is not enough for management development providers to say their programmes are evidence-based. The designers and providers of management development programmes should provide evidence to support the claims they make about the effectiveness of their programmes. 

Providers of initial teacher training

Most school leaders still ‘come through the ranks’ having entered the profession as prospective teachers. The quality of the initial teacher training that new entrants receive, forms a significant role in shaping future leaders’ professional DNA.

It is essential that providers of initial teacher training design programmes that have evidence-based practice at their very core. New and aspiring teachers need to be supported so that they can become both research literate and be able to incorporate multiple sources of evidence into their day-to-day work teachers. 

Teach First’s recent report How can we help new teachers use research evidence to inform their teaching? is to be welcomed.

Professional Bodies

Professional bodies have a pivotal role in shaping the environment in which school leaders operate in.  In England the Chartered College of Teaching has done some excellent work by making academic research easily available to members and by holding a wide range of events to help teachers and leaders engage with evidence. In addition, the professional bodies representing school leaders can play a vital role in articulating the professional values that should inform school leadership. 

Accountability bodies

As Brown and Greany (2017) state: “evidence-informed practice is now viewed by educational policymakers in England as a driver of school and system self-improvement.” They go on to argue that evidence informed self-improvement within England’s schools needs to be underpinned by external accountability and inspection processes, with Ofsted’s inspection framework being suitably amended. 

Fortunately, there are signs that Ofsted are making greater use of research evidence to inform both future inspection framework and the process by which inspections are being carried out (Muijs, 2018).

Teachers

If leadership decisions within schools are going to be ‘evidence-based’ then teachers have a central role to play in ensuring the success of such an approach. 

  1. The views of teachers and their practical expertise form an integral part of the evidence-base on which decisions are made.    
  2. Given that evidence-based school leaders need to be ‘conscientious, explicit and judicious’ then teachers have  an essential role of ‘calling-out’ leaders who do not meet such standards.  This will not always be easy, and in many instances may not even be ‘safe’ given the leadership and management culture of a school.   
  3. Teachers need to demand better evidence from the leaders of their schools to show both the direct impact of current practices and the potential impact of future interventions.

Governing Bodies and Boards of Trustees

The board is the key decision-maker within a school, and although decisions may be delegated to executive leaders, committee or individual, the board as the body corporate remains responsible and accountable for all decisions made (DfE, 2017b). 

The essential role of evidence-based school leadership within the decision-making framework of a school or multi-academy trusts is made clear in the Governance Handbook, subsequent guidance on competencies required by governors/trustees (DfE, 2017a) and the National Governance Association guidance (NGA, 2017).

These documents make it clear that governors need to take into account multiple sources of evidence – research, school data, practitioner expertise and stakeholders in the decision making process. These decisions should be taken where:

  • viable options are identified
  • personal interests are set aside
  • free and frank discussion takes place
  • a range of perspectives are valued
  • assumptions are rejected and nothing is taken for granted
  • decisions are made impartially, fairly and on merit using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias
  • transparency in decision making – is the board willingly answerable to, and open to challenge from, those with an interest in decisions made (DfE, 2017a). 

In other words, unless boards are using principles, practices and processes which are consistent with evidence-based school leadership, the board is highly likely to be in breach of its statutory responsibilities to a collaborative, open, explicit and civilized endeavour.

Government

Governments have a critical role in creating the context in which evidence-based practice will either flourish or fade away. 

  1. Governments have a responsibility to engage in evidence-based policy making and ensure that policies on things, such as grammar schools, are informed by evidence and not based on ‘zombie ideas’ (Quiggin, 2012).
  2. Governments need to create the conditions in which school leaders can develop both the opportunities and skills to engage in evidence-based school leadership. This needs to be done through the provision of both the appropriate leadership development programmes, in-school resources to provide the time and the space to make the best use of evidence.
  3. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that accountability schemes hold school leaders to account for their use of research and evidence. In other words, school leaders need to have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to engage in evidence-school leadership.
  4. The government’s use of data when providing information about the ‘performance’ of schools, needs to be done in such a way that it actively discourages ‘gamefication’ of results.

The reality of school improvement and evidence used needs to match the rhetoric.

To conclude

Developing evidence-based, or evidence-informed, practice within schools will take more than teachers accessing the latest research evidence or EEF evidence-summary. 

It will require a system-wide effort, and with all such efforts, progress may be slow and at sometimes frustrating.  On the other hand, improving education opportunities and attainment for all is a matter of social justice and is task we should not shirk away from.

References

Brown, C. and Greany, T. (2017). The Evidence-Informed School System in England: Where Should School Leaders Be Focusing Their Efforts? Leadership and Policy in Schools. 1-23.
DfE. (2017a). A Competency Framework for Governance the Knowledge, Skills and Behaviours Needed for Effective Governance in Maintained Schools, Academies and Multi-Academy Trusts : January 2017. London. Department for Education
DfE. (2017b). Governance Handbook : For Academies, Multi-Academy Trusts and Maintained Schools January 2017. London. Department for Education
Le Fevre, D., Robinson, V. and Sinnema, C. (2015). Genuine Inquiry : Widely Espoused yet Rarely Enacted. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 43. 6. 883 - 899.
Muijs, D. (2018). An Evidence-Informed System - an Evidence-Informed Inspectorate. ResearchED London. 8 September
Murphy, R., Weinhardt, F., Wyness, G. and Rolfe, H. (2017). Lesson Study Evaluation Report and Executive Summary: November 2017. London. Education Endowment Foundation.
NGA. (2017). Model Procedures: Code of Conduct Legislation, Policies and Procedures Birmingham. Association, N. G.
Quiggin, J. (2012). Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
Teach First. (2017).Putting Evidence to Work: How Can We Help New Teachers Use Research Evidence to Inform Their Teaching? London. Teach First.
Worth, J., Sizmur, J., Walker, M., Bradshaw, S. and Styles, B. (2017). Teacher Observation: Evaluation Report and Executive Summary November 2017. London. Education Endowment Foundation.

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