Evidence-based policy has become something of a catch phrase recently. My own MP, the scientist and my former departmental colleague Julian Huppert, used the phrase in his maiden speech, pledging to support it, albeit other MPs may be less persuaded by its importance. The phrase also sits at the heart of Mark Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto, so it perhaps isn’t surprising to find Mark, in his role as Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, being instrumental in setting up a dinner table discussion around ‘Evidence in Education’, at an event hosted by Mark Walport this week. (As it happens, under the Geek Manifesto Pledge, in which 325 of us pledged to send a copy to an MP of our choice, I chose to send mine to Michael Gove. I did not get a response. )
I actually feel that the chapter on education in The Geek Manifesto is rather light in comparison with some of the other chapters. Perhaps at the time of writing Mark hadn’t spent as much time thinking about the issues involving schooling as he had about some of the other topics; or perhaps, because of my own involvement with the education agenda, I know more about the issues than about those in some of the other chapters. I don’t usually blog about education matters since, as Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to comment on many of the current hot topics surrounding the curriculum, and the proposed changes to both GCSE’s and A levels emanating from the Department for Education. But Mark has encouraged those of us at the dinner to write about the event, albeit under Chatham House Rules (so that I won’t be telling you who said what) so I’m following up on that encouragement. However, it will hardly be surprising if I tell you that there was a consensus that getting good evidence and carrying out well-posed research in education is something for which there is a crying need, but relatively little is yet being carried out.
It being a Wellcome event, many comparisons were drawn with the situation with (clinical) medicine. Here evidence is typically garnered by Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT’s). These may have at their heart the reality that medicine is a far from exact science, but they are a crucial way in which our knowledge increases. Could the same be used routinely to uncover what actually ‘works’ when it comes to teaching? One example of such a trial, that Wellcome themselves have recently initiated in conjunction with the National Science Learning Centre, concerns an exploration of how effective Continuous Professional Development may be for primary school teachers. This project is specifically looking at the effectiveness of a new 24 day programme aimed at helping teachers without science degrees gain confidence in teaching science in primary schools. This is an important matter, given the shortage of such teachers with any sort of formal scientific training beyond GCSE.
One theme that came out time and time again over the dinner table was the very different nature of the teaching and medical professions. The latter has a well-defined infrastructure involving professional bodies such as the BMA, professional journals such as the BMJ and funders beyond government including the Wellcome Trust; the equivalents for the teaching profession don’t really exist and the career structures are different too. Is this infrastructure necessary to facilitate a research culture? What would it take to create a culture within the teaching community that rewarded practitioners moving from full time in the classroom to carrying out research and then back again, and would that solve the current problem of lack of research evidence? The phrase ‘researcher – practitioner’ was bandied about. However we also need to ask if our teachers, by and large, have the confidence and ability in research methods or statistical analysis to make this viable anyhow?
More politically, one can ask if as a nation we could move away from diktats from government which, correctly or not, are seen as ideological and not obviously based on evidence. Again the distinction with medicine is very clear; no government official would try to lay down what is ‘best practice’ in the surgery or operating theatre, yet by implication such guidance is often offered by the DfE when practices such as the literacy hour or the teaching of phonics are introduced. The question was raised whether the government is simply stepping into the void which in medicine is plugged by the BMA.
The discussion came back to this theme of the (lack of) research infrastructure in education repeatedly, but the specifics of which questions need to be answered were less readily teased out. From my perspective I found the conversation a little frustrating as it rarely was STEM-specific, more often appearing to concentrate on topics such as struggling readers (as manifest by the examples I give above) where there already is ample evidence of what works and what doesn’t. I would have welcomed a more focussed look at the problems that are relevant to our rather poor standards in numeracy across the board, or considered what science teaching is effective in maintaining a child’s innate curiosity about the world around them as they move from primary to secondary school. Here we do have some data on trends and it tends to show this is a critical stage at which children lose interest in science despite enthusiasm at younger ages.
Wellcome will be continuing to explore these themes. They are clearly close to Mark Walport’s heart and I would expect that his interest in the importance of securing sufficient numbers in the scientific pipeline will continue as he moves to take up his new role as the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor in the next few weeks. If, in that role, he can facilitate better evidence-gathering and a clearer appreciation amongst politicians across the political spectrum of why this matters in our classrooms as much as in our hospitals, then maybe in due course we will see a development of the researcher community and a higher value placed on research involving the necessarily large numbers to convey confidence in the outcomes (ie not merely from single schools, which will always have their own particular features and cultures which may make findings impossible to replicate elsewhere). That would be an encouraging step forward.