Forget structural reform, education must remember the essentials

28 Jul 2018

In my secondary school, there was a lecture theatre which could hold one hundred students. Inside, surrounded by pale lime coloured walls, were row after row of wooden benches covered in graffiti. The blackboard at the front always had a half-erased equation or Shakespearean quotation written on it. The whole room smelt like chalk dust, while there was a 'pit' at the front where the teacher would stand encircled by wood and brick. The only time I was in this room was for a psychometric test, which to this day I have no idea what was for. By the time I graduated, the space had been refurbished three times from a lecture theatre, to a computer suite, and finally back to a lecture theatre. I haven't been back to my school in several years, but no doubt it has changed once again.


I speak to school governors regularly and the conversation sooner or later comes around to academies. Are you a MAT? What are your delegations of authority? Are you still a maintained school? These conversations often make me think of that old lecture theatre at my secondary school. In the education sector, there is too much focus on structures, and the type of lecture theatre rather than the teaching which occurs inside it.


On a recent trip back to my mother’s house, I found out that the school had undergone more change. It had merged with its feeder schools in the local area and had become an Academy Trust. I wondered if this meant another refurbishment of that old space. I imagined walking into the foyer to see that the lecture theatre was now a sports hall, or a state-of-the-art multi-media studio.


Since the Academics Act in 2010, in which the government allowed any school, not just those in ‘requiring improvement’ category, to become an academy, there has been an explosion in upgrades across the country. Currently, 3.4 million children are taught in either a sponsored or a converter academy in England. This represents the biggest shift in education policy since the 'comprehensive' system was expanded in the 1960s. This change instituted by consecutive governments on a cross-party basis has quietly become the status quo in English education policy. Yet this focus on structures has resulted in the neglect of the very essence of education: teaching and learning.


I don't know the details of why the lecture theatre in my school changed so often, I was more interested in football. Even if my school was right to spend time and cash on that lecture theatre, the system as a whole is far too concerned with structures, organisational relationships and macro approaches to improve the educational system. There is not nearly enough conversation about the micro, the classroom experience, and the teacher-pupil relationship.


The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has over the last seven years built a Teaching and Learning Toolkit to provide educational information for teachers and school leaders, rated against cost and impact. The most important aspect of their research is their methodology. All studies funded by the EEF are measured against a control group to compare the impact of the intervention. For example, there is evidence that it is often more detrimental to student achievement to intervene rather than to sit back and let them progress themselves.


Additionally, there is extensive evidence to show that one-to-one tuition with students increases outcomes but is expensive to implement. On the other hand, collaborative learning (where students learn in groups with each other) has similar levels of improved outcomes but is much cheaper. Education is susceptible to fads because everyone thinks the education they received can be generalised for all of society. Creating an environment where teachers are able to implement evidence-based interventions, at classroom level, rather than advice from basic ‘toolkits,’ would have far-reaching results on outcomes for students. It would certainly achieve more than an endless series of structural reorganisation.


Governance matters, autonomy matters, and funding matters. However, in order to have the most impact on the future of our children there needs to be a renewed focus on classroom teaching. What is taught? How is it taught? Why is it taught? These are simple questions, but they are also the most important.


My old school lecture theatre was fully equipped with the most innovative technologies of the late nineties, such as Microsoft 1998 and interactive whiteboards. It was refurbished several times, but the changes in education were much less noticeable. If all we can do in education policy is to replace graffiti with desktop computers, then we will be failing the generations who will walk into such halls in the future.


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