Why Schools Need to Do What Works

Special Focus : Learning to Live and Work Together
Designing an Effective Training Program October 09, 2017

I want to see – as I am sure do you – an education system which allows every single pupil to flourish, no matter who they are or where they come from. Yet far too often we see the same story in schools across the globe: the poorest pupils – those who can’t afford the same out-of-school support that their better-off classmates can – lose out at every stage.

The stakes are too high for this to be acceptable any more. The size of public expenditure on education and the long-term effects of poor educational outcomes mean that society cannot afford to risk time, effort and money on anything less than the most effective approaches.
To make every penny count, teaching needs to become a profession grounded in evidence. Schools need to do ‘what works’. This may sound obvious and simple. But, education isn’t simple, it’s complicated and we need to develop new skills if we’re going to equip teachers to act as evidence informed, empowered professionals.
‘What works’ is really shorthand for ‘what has worked in the past and gives us the best indication of what is likely to work in your school, with your particular cohort of pupils.’ Less catchy perhaps, but certainly more accurate.
Doing ‘what works’ isn’t just a matter of observing what happens in good schools, labelling it ‘best practice’, and strong-arming everyone into doing it. Schools and classrooms are complex systems, and within them it is very hard to distinguish cause from effect. What we need is sound research to determine causal relationships between teaching strategies and pupil progress.
This is where randomised controlled trials (RCTs) come in. RCTs enable us to test out high-potential ideas in the real world of a classroom, giving us a reliable estimate of the impact of a programme by comparing the outcomes of students who received it with a control group of students who did not.  
Six years’ ago, education research and RCTs were almost unheard of in English schools. Fast forward to 2017 and much has changed. Since 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – the organisation I lead – has committed funding for rigorous and independent evaluations of over 140 different programmes and EEF-funded trials now accounting for more than 10 per cent of all known trials in education.
Perhaps the most significant figure, though, is this: around a third of state-funded schools in England are, or have been, involved in an RCT funded by the EEF. We now know that large-scale, robust, quantitative trials of programmes in schools are possible.
In my view, this is one of the biggest leaps forward the English education system has made in the past 30 years. The evidence generated by robust trials means teachers today are in a much better position to judge what is likely to work in their classroom than they were even a few years ago. There’s a growing appetite for clear and actionable evidence across the teaching profession. Not only have teachers embraced research, but they’re actively calling for more.
But running robust evaluations of educational innovations is only half the challenge; in the busy plate-spinning world of schools, helping teachers to act upon the findings and deliver change in a consistent and replicable way is equally complex. Our next big challenge, therefore, is scaling the evidence we have for the maximum benefit of our young people.
We need to get the most effective practices and the best available evidence to travel between teachers and schools and across different systems, so that we all learn how to learn better.
The EEF is now partnering with teachers and school systems in Chile, Australia and across the UK to move beyond educational tourism and help grow good practice from within the profession. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit – our accessible summary of education research – has now been translated into Spanish and Portuguese and launched this summer in Latin America.
Supporting leaders in schools and governments to make the best possible decisions based on access to independent, actionable and relevant evidence is essential if we are going to fulfil the promise of an education system where every pupil is allowed to fulfil their potential.