What Works – A winning formula

Peter Lampl welcomes the designation of the Sutton Trust and EEF as the What Works Centre for Education

This week the Sutton Trust was, together with the Education Endowment Foundation, designated the What Works evidence centre for education by the Government. There will be six leading evidence centres and we and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) have been selected to lead on education and health respectively. The centres will be the first port of call for advice on the latest research on the impact of Government programmes.

This is recognition of the Sutton Trust’s focus on evaluation and research in all the work it does. We have always aspired to subject our programmes to robust review. And as an independent foundation we have used evidence to challenge or support the Government’s education policies.

The Trust has funded over 120 research studies in the areas of social mobility and education. But it is primarily a ‘do tank’. Our flagship summer school programme for example is now the largest national university access scheme – but it is also the most scrutinised programme in this field.

We know they have impact: over three quarters (76%) of summer school attendees go on to a leading university, compared with only 55% of students with similar backgrounds who aren’t on the programme. We also know they are highly cost-effective: when Boston Consulting Group did a cost-benefit analysis of the Trust’s programmes – comparing the lifetime earnings benefits for the individuals on the schemes with the money spent – summer schools were among the programmes resulting in returns of over 20:1.

It was these disciplines – assessing the evidence on what works, assessing cost-benefit, but also ensuring that the research results are presented in a clear accessible way – that underpinned the Teaching and Learning Toolkit the Trust developed for schools on what works best at improving the results of children from poorer backgrounds. The Toolkit has now been used by thousands of schools across the country, and underpins the work of the Education Endowment Foundation.

When we established the EEF in 2011 as lead foundation with Impetus our vision was that it was going to embrace the Sutton Trust’s principles and become a gigantic do tank. The aim was to improve the results of the poorest children in our most challenging schools. But it would also have the freedom to experiment, innovate and rigorously evaluate projects and scale up those that were cost effective.

Two years on I am pleased to say that this has become the reality. To date the EEF has awarded £24.4 million to 55 projects working with over 275,000 pupils in over 1,400 schools across England. It has commissioned over 40 randomised research trials in our schools – the gold standard for evaluations on what works. Over the coming years these studies will add greatly to our knowledge of what interventions are successful in the classroom.

But with research, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Not all the Sutton Trust’s research findings have been welcome. In 2005 the Trust jointly funded a five-year study with the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills and the College Board into the US SAT aptitude test as a potential addition tool in the selection of candidates for universities.

In particular the National Foundation for Educational Research study aimed to find out whether the SAT test could identify highly able non-privileged students whose potential was not being reflected in A-levels because of their circumstances. After five years tracking the results of thousands sixth formers who then attending university, the study concluded that the SAT added little extra information to that provided by A-levels.

If the Government is true to its word on ‘evidence-based policy’ then it will have to face up to this reality. The research may not always confirm prior convictions or favoured policies, and almost always throws up some unexpected results. That’s why I think it is important the EEF and the Sutton Trust remain fiercely independent and make public all the evidence we produce. As the Government’s What Works evidence centre for education, these will be our guiding principles.

One thought on “What Works – A winning formula

  1. While the SAT study didn’t support the case for introducing them here in England, it did have some other interesting findings which validated the study – and that’s the way things can be in good research – you may set out thinking you will solve a specific problem, but actually end up raising all kinds of related issues. Policy makers don’t like this as it is not black and white enough for them – which is why they lean towards definitive studies – the danger is that this defines the context of how we build knowledge (a big issue with the new National Curriculum plans) and allows them to dismiss other ‘less certain’ research as inconsequential.

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