A tale of two classrooms

The education system in England and Wales has of late been subject to rapid and tumultuous reforms. These changes have affected every aspect of our education system, from school structures – with the introduction of academies and latterly free schools – to accountability – changes to the Ofsted framework and introduction of the EBacc – to the curriculum and qualifications – the shake-up of vocational qualifications and the introduction of the iGCSE.

It is too soon to establish what the impact of many of these changes will be on the quality of the education our children receive. And the experience for senior leaders and teachers has at times been bewildering. However, it is clear that ‘business as usual’ was not an option, with claims from leading employers that young people were not being prepared for the most basic elements of the world of work, and the UK slipping down the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings on literacy and maths.

There are some initial signs that elements of reform are having a positive impact, particularly when considering the great strides that have been made in London to close the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers. However, even in that case, experts suggest the evidence which can attribute these gains to specific policy interventions is patchy at best.

While the debate continues as to whether these changes related to the structure and content of our education system actually impact quality of teaching and subsequent standards, perhaps the biggest intractable problem we face is the growing attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. So in A Tale of Two Classrooms, a collection of essays published today with Durham University, we are not just interested in attainment overall, but rather in how that attainment, and the opportunities that come with it, are distributed across society. Or to put it another way, how severe is educational inequality, and what should we do about it?

We start with a working definition of disadvantage, and a realistic expectation of what schools can do to remedy it. Higgins and Tymms provide this, demonstrating that pupils do not enter school equal: instead there are a variety of factors – including genetics, social class, quality of parenting and wealth – that impact on their attainment even before they enter the school gates for the first time.

As Stephen Gorard describes in his contribution, there is already a gap of 21 per cent between those in relative poverty and the rest even before they start school. But this continues throughout their education, such that at age 16 the gap has widened to 26 per cent, between children eligible for free school meals and others achieving five or more high passes in GCSE, or equivalent, including English and maths. The important relationship between poverty and educational disadvantage is explored in depth by Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; she finds it to be both strong and self-perpetuating.

Despite the Coalition Government’s best efforts, and the introduction of the pupil premium, the attainment gap is not going away. Perhaps most disappointing of all, as Merrell, Little and Coedemonstrate, all of the activity by this Government and the previous two appears to have had very little impact in closing the attainment gap. In fact, as Demos analysis cited by Tristram Hunt in his contribution reveals, the gap has worsened by 0.3 per cent over the last year, and by 2.8 per cent overall if you exclude London.

The primacy of evidence

So how do we reduce educational inequality? Fortunately, there is a growing evidence base as to what works in bridging the gap. And one reassuring policy trend has been the cross-party support for the use of this evidence in education policy and practice, with a number of initiatives and institutions created to support this work such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the ‘What Works’ centres, including the Early Intervention Foundation. The EEF’sToolkit provides policy-makers and practitioners with easily accessible evidence on what interventions are known to be reliable in providing what outcomes, and whether they give value for money.

Also in this vein, the Cabinet Office published a paper co-authored by Ben Goldacre, encouraging the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) to test the efficacy of policies. This approach is applauded by Carole Torgerson in her contribution, in which she presents a compelling case for the widespread use of RCTs when assessing educational interventions.

However, in his contribution, Sam Freedman of Teach First outlines the potential pitfalls of RCTs, particularly the risk of poor implementation, and the simplification and misinterpretation of data. But he also makes clear that they are a step in the right direction and in fact the future of a successful education system, if used by schools and education professionals to engage with the evidence and inform their practice.

Policy-makers’ use of evidence on a national scale is perhaps another story. While policy decisions are increasingly founded on an evidence base, Stephen Gorard argues that some recent reforms, particularly those to school structures, go against the run of the evidence. This raises a longer standing problem, one which Demos has often grappled with: what if there is tension between popular politics and evidence-based politics, as is so often the case in a range of policy areas?

At Demos, we are currently working with four schools across England and Wales to pilot and evaluate an intervention designed to re-engage pupils who are disengaged with their education, by encouraging them to set their own targets and stick to them. It draws on our work on non-cognitive skills, or ‘character’, a crucial aspect of education that Tristram Hunt also emphasises in his essay. But it is also influenced by the theory of co-production, an approach which states that those using a service or affected by a policy may have insights that the experts do not.

Through this approach, by marrying evidence-based approaches to approving attainment while valuing pupils’ views and insights, we hope to square the circle between expertise and experience. This collection is of one voice in making clear that the future of education policy is evidence-based, but we must also listen to the voice of the demos.