Why teachers can’t call themselves a profession

Lee Elliot Major on the need for an evidence-based approach in the classroom

I have often thought that commentators who want to criticise teachers should first pass the ‘teacher test’ to earn the right to do so. Having spent time in front of an inner-city classroom (with a teacher beside me) I can tell you it is one of the most challenging (and rewarding) experiences I have ever had. And that was just for one hour!

We don’t value our teachers anywhere near enough. Few of us really understand (or could cope with) the demands of their job. Just ask Sir Peter Lampl, a hard-nosed business leader, who once thought teachers had it easy. After 15 years at the helm of the Sutton Trust he now talks only of admiration for the inspirational educators of our children.

But teachers remain vulnerable to one well-founded attack. Can they call themselves a true modern-day profession? I’m afraid not. And one of the main reasons is this. Teachers have yet to embrace an evidence-based approach to their work: there is no accepted body of knowledge, based on robust research, to inform what they do (or don’t do); nor is there a culture of investigation to evaluate what works best in their particular school or classroom. The contrast with the modus operandi of medics could not be starker.

Below I have adapted a famous graph in education policy circles, first produced during New Labour’s early education reforms of the late 1990’s.

Knowledge poor

The graph describes the different phases of teaching during the last half century. It contrasts them in terms of the knowledge used to underpin the work of teachers, and the levels of autonomy they have enjoyed.

Before 1988 teachers were essentially practitioners free to pursue their own ways of working, with little reference to the body of research on what worked best. Then came the Big Bang of Baker’s Government reforms – the league tables, inspections and the national curriculum – that prescribed exactly what was expected in the classroom. A decade later under New Labour, another wave of top-down programmes emerged – the national numeracy and literacy strategies. These initiatives were based at least in part on the evidence of their impact.

The last phase of the graph highlights what has yet to be realised: the promised land of teachers as informed autonomous professionals, and no longer in need of Government direction.

The good news is that an accessible summary of education research on what works to raise attainment is now available. Last week saw the re-launch of the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit. This is latest generation of the guide updating the evidence first released two years ago. It challenges many of the assumptions among teachers – revealing the limited impact from reducing class sizes and the current deployment of teaching assistants. This is one important step in the journey towards a teaching profession that embraces evidence. But as Ben Levin stresses, it is really only the start: everyone knows that exercise is good for them, but that doesn’t mean we all do it, does it?

I see at least three major challenges for the deep cultural reforms needed for teaching to evolve into the respected profession it should be.

The first is the glacial timescale for change. The improved education systems across the world required concerted leadership and efforts over several years. This is the “grind not the glamour” that the EEF’s chief executive, Kevan Collins, talks about.

The second is the danger of Whitehall’s heavy hand that can stifle rather than stimulate change. The long hard road to reform extends well beyond Whitehall fads (evidence based policy is currently back in vogue) and Parliamentary cycles.

No, this change will have to come from teachers themselves. It is striking that in all the reviews of the nations at the top of the global education rankings, the common watchwords are professionalism, professional development, evidence, and research.

Too Young To Count?

James Turner examines the challenges of working with younger pupils

Last week, the OFFA chief Les Ebdon said that universities should look to work more with younger age groups.

We couldn’t agree more. The Sutton Trust has always believed at intervention at every phase of education, and we have a proud history of supporting initiatives reaching younger children – including Children’s University and Into University which start at age seven – and visits to universities for 11 year olds.

But like many pronouncements, it’s easier said than done.

First, is the question of how to engage teachers and schools with the university access agenda. It is often difficult enough to reach hard-pressed teachers in 11-16 schools, let alone in primary schools where higher education seems even more distant.  Tellingly, the Trust once funded university resource packs for primary schools in disadvantaged areas and, despite the quality of the material, it was hard to give them away, literally.

Then there is the question of what support is appropriate and when. What should seven year olds know about university which is relevant to their lives and likely to affect their aspirations? A general rule of thumb has been that pre-14 work should be about higher education generally; after that it can be more focussed on subjects and institutions. But there are no hard and fast rules and little evidence to help us out.

There is also a related issue around expertise – what makes an inspiring summer school for sixteen year olds is not the same as what makes a good primary school event.  And the best university lecturer might not be the person to appeal most to snotty-nosed juniors.

And then, perhaps most importantly, how do you know it works? It could be ten years plus before the children that benefit from a programme are in the UCAS cycle. Staff will have moved on, as will the political agenda, and so many other things will have intervened in those young lives.  What will we have learnt? Universities have already complained, with some justification, that only the government can track students through from age seven to seventeen to know if this work is making a difference.

More and more it looks like what is needed is a national structure for coordinating and funding this work – including some of the best of Aimhigher in a slimmed down, more focussed and evidence-based version.

As access work becomes more distant from the point of admission, it is bound to be less of a priority for universities, whose activities are principally funded by their own fee income and whose bottom line is, so to speak, bums on seats.

So a central body could also be charged with monitoring the impact of access work in a wider sense, particularly those initiatives which start young, and ensure there are no gaps in provision, both geographic and age-related.   It could also encourage disciplined innovation – allowing universities to experiment within a framework which allows for evaluation and scale-up of what works to other parts of the sector.  And there should be a defined pot of resources which are ear-marked for stimulating this particular type of access activity.

Starting early makes infinite sense; it is less clear that the current funding streams and infrastructures are able to deliver what is needed.

My Welcome to Yale

Lucinda Denney18 year-old Lucinda Denney, an A-level student from Blackpool, is one of 12 students already offered places at leading US universities, thanks to the Sutton Trust summer school. As our guest blogger today, she reflects on going to Yale:

When I was accepted to the Sutton Trust’s US Summer School Programme, I could never have even imagined the opportunities that would come as a result of being part of such an unprecedented and truly outstanding scheme.

The experience of travelling to America for the first time, staying at and visiting some of America’s most prestigious universities, having tea at the British Consulate, watching a show on Broadway and then, after I returned to the UK, having to undertake the extensive American application system and prepare for standardised testing was simply a whirlwind of excitement, joy, stress and pure satisfaction.

Despite the ups and downs of the process, the trials and tribulations, one thing did remain a constant: there is no way I would ever have been able to apply to university in the US, and get into Yale no less, without the help of the Sutton Trust and the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

The advice, dedication and sheer commitment of every single member of the team provided me with the support I needed to get through such a demanding process and come out the other side having fulfilled every dream I ever had when I set out on this programme back in the summer of 2012.

I made the decision to apply to university in America because their universities don’t just look at your academic results. They place a far greater value upon what makes a person who they are, the activities they enjoy, the things that inspire them, what drives them, and their past achievements and accomplishments. It cannot be said that universities in the US aren’t known for their superior academic excellence, as they regularly top world university rankings, but it is also the diversity and sheer talent that composes their student bodies that made me want to be a part of such a prestigious university system.

I feel that, before I have even started my time at Yale, that due to being a part of this process and by simply applying to American universities I have gained a sense of independence, the realisation that nothing is ever impossible if you give it your all, a greater feeling of self-worth in my own capabilities and achievements, and most importantly memories and friendships that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.

I found out on December 16th 2012 at 10pm that I had been accepted to Yale as part of their Class of 2017. Although that night is now quite I blur, I do remember the moment the Yale bulldog sung its song of congratulations to me and when I went on to read the Dean’s letter of acceptance.

I was overcome by emotion but I can honestly say that it really was one of the best moments of my life as it made me realise that all of my hard work and commitment to my studies and my extra-curricular activities had finally paid off and I would be hopefully heading off to the university of my dreams in the fall of 2013.

The Trouble With Boys

Conor Ryan reflects on David Willetts’ latest initiative to persuade more white working class boys to study at university.

Universities minister David Willetts was quick off the blocks for 2013 with his ideas on how to encourage white working class boys to go to university.

Young women are now a third more likely than young men to go to university, and there is a three-fold gap in applications between the poorest and richest neighbourhoods. In an article and interview for The Independent, Mr Willetts said that the education system “seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning.

He told the paper that the Office for Fair Access  “look at a range of disadvantaged groups – social class and ethnicity, for instance – when it comes to access agreements, so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys.”

The Minister has a point. Growing research in recent years suggests that white working class boys perform less well than many minority ethnic communities in their test and exam results.

Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally, in a 2006 LSE study, identified a stronger gender gap in secondary than primary schools. They argued that “the importance of coursework in the GCSE examination is likely to be a key explanation for the emergence of the gender gap at age 16.” They also identified differences in teaching and learning styles, and modes of assessment.

In 2007, Joseph Rowntree Foundation research, conducted by Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon, with some Sutton Trust input, found that nearly half of all students defined as low achievers were White British males. White British students on average – boys and girls – were more likely than other ethnic groups to persist in low achievement.

National College research by Denis Mongon and Christopher Chapman from Manchester University with the National Union of Teachers in 2008 suggested that some school leaders were better than others at narrowing this gap. They suggested a focus on clear strategies including relentless application of the highest standards in teaching and attention to data detail were key where the gap was lower.

They rightly pointed out that the social class gap is much wider than any gender gap, yet the data suggest that white working class boys are at an even greater disadvantage than white working class girls. This lower attainment can translate into lower ambitions, as reflected in applications to Sutton Trust summer schools – an important route for many low and middle income young people into leading universities.

Sutton Trust summer schools target the first child in families who might go to university. In 2012, there were 5,295 applicants from girls and 2,712 from boys, a ratio of 2:1. Even with a slightly higher acceptance rate among boys than girls, 62% of attendees were girls and just 38% boys.

Recent exam data bears out both the gender and socio-economic gaps. The 2012 Key Stage Test data suggests that 60% of White British boys eligible for free school meals reach level 2 in English and Maths, compared with 67% of White British FSM girls. This is larger than the three point gender gap among all other pupils. However, there is a six-point gender gap across all FSM pupils. The big difference is in English, where the gender gap among FSM pupils is 12 points.

On the main 5 GCSE indicator (including English and Maths), 2011  data (2012 data is due later this month). shows that 26% of White British FSM boys reached this standard compared with 32% of girls, a slightly smaller gender gap than exists for all other pupils, but one consistent with the gap at age eleven. On overall performance, only traveller boys perform worse now at GCSE. 33% of Black Caribbean boys, for example, now reach the 5 GCSE standard (though overall White British students perform ten points better than Black Caribbean students)

So what can we do? David Willetts is surely right to want universities to provide concerted help through summer schools over several years to lift aspirations. The Trust is planning to use this approach through programmes with Kent academies and working with University College London to support highly able pupils from Year 8 onwards over five years.

Of course, Michael Gove’s changes to the exam system and curriculum – more facts, more end-of-course testing – may reduce the overall gender gap, as girls are believed to perform better in coursework.

But, in addition to OFFA looking more closely at the data, a more concerted focus on white working class boys could also be productive. When the Labour government targeted Afro-Caribbean achievement in the late 1990s, after the Stephen Lawrence murder, it set clear goals and a strong focus that has particularly benefited FSM pupils.  The London Challenge will have been of particular benefit, with its strong focus on leadership, teaching and data.

Today, our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation is testing the most effective ways to lifting achievement for pupils in receipt of free school meals, and has the potential to make a real difference in narrowing attainment gaps. 70% of its target group is White British.

The experience of minority ethnic communities suggests cultural change is also important. Bangladeshi students used to perform relatively poorly in schools. Now they out-perform White British students overall, and 56% of Bangladeshi students eligible for free school meals – including 53% of FSM boys – reach the five GCSE benchmark. That change owes a lot to a community’s desire to learn, backed by parents and teachers working to meet that desire.

Harnessing a similar will to learn in white working class communities must be a part of the solution to the low attainment of too many of their boys – and girls.

Moving Up the Great Gatsby Curve

Lee Elliot Major on the link between inequality and social mobility

How do you slide down the Great Gatsby Curve? This is the question posed by the Canadian economist, Miles Corak in his latest paper on a simple but powerful graph that has attracted much attention on the other side of the Pond. The graph encapsulates arguably the biggest social challenge facing highly developed countries in the early 21st century: how to safeguard social mobility in a world of increasing income gaps between rich and poor.

The christening of the Great Gatsby Curve almost exactly a year ago was itself a minor miracle. Here was a senior US Government adviser conceding publicly that the American dream is little more than a myth for many citizens. Alan Krueger, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (Obama’s in-house economic think tank) named the graph after the novel by F Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is one of the great works of American literature capturing a time of excess during the 1920’s. The rise and fall of the book’s central character, the enigmatic millionaire, Jay Gatsby, has become a cautionary tale about the American Dream.

For the Roaring Twenties read the great divides of the early 21st century. After the post war boom in social mobility, the gaps between rich and poor in the US and UK have widened to pre-war levels. The implication of the Great Gatsby Curve is that today’s excesses will make it much harder for future generations to fulfil the American dream: success in life will only be available for those with the support and connections that come with a privileged upbringing. Sadly, the same can also be said for the UK.

The graph (below) compares two statistics for a number of rich nations. On the horizontal axis is the official Gini coefficient, which measures the level of income inequality at a point in time in a country. The higher the Gini coefficient, the bigger the income gap between the richest and poorest in society. On the vertical axis is what is termed ‘generational earnings elasticity’. This measure signals how sticky or immobile a society is comparing one generation with the previous one. It tells us how much a father’s earnings predicts the earnings of their offspring. The higher this number, the lower is social mobility.

Gatsby curve

As you can see the Curve shows that more unequal societies are less mobile. Put simply, when the rungs of the income ladder are wide, the chances of climbing the ladder are lower. The UK and US are particularly unequal and immobile. To put current US mobility levels into perspective Krueger uses a clever comparison of the correlation between parents’ height and their children’s height. “The chance of a person who was born to a family in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution rising to the top 10 percent as an adult is about the same as the chance that a dad who is 5’6” tall having a son who grows up to be over 6’1” tall. It happens, but not often.”

More ominously, as the UK and US are more unequal now than they were a generation ago, the Curve suggests less mobility for future generations.

When Corak presented an earlier version of his paper during the Sutton Trust-Carnegie summit on social mobility last year, he was careful to stress that the Curve does not chart a causal relationship.  If it was that simple, then improving mobility would be a straightforward task of raising taxes to reduce income gaps. Each point on the Curve however is a product of a complex series of interacting influences over the lifetimes of children and adults.

How life chances are created in each country can be broken down in terms of three main underlying factors. These are: family influences (including genetic, environmental and cultural factors); public policies (how education, health, and welfare systems benefit people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds); and wage differentials in the workplace. The problem for the UK and US is that in each of these areas, we compare poorly to other countries in the mobility stakes. A private tuition and coaching industry has mushroomed to exploit the resources now devoted in homes to secure children’s futures. The best schools and teachers disproportionately benefit the well-off. And the wage premiums for the highly educated are accelerating away from those of the uneducated. And so one generation’s privilege is bequeathed to the next.

Given this backdrop, I’m afraid my question is a more pessimistic one than that posed by Corak. How does the UK and US find ways to stop moving up the Great Gatsby Curve?