Worlds Apart

Lee Elliot Major on the challenge of getting research to impact on education practise

As I revealed the next slide, there was an audible gasp among the 200 strong audience. I knew at that moment I had lost the crowd. Whatever I said next, everyone’s mind was focused on the big fat zero that sat at the bottom of the impact table staring out from the screen. As I turned to face the angry faces, I saw that the throngs of hard working, decent teaching assistants (TAs) had turned into a lynch mob.

On reflection, presenting the findings of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit to TAs at the end of a long hard term was not the best idea. This guide to the best (and worst) bets for improving results in the classroom shows that TAs have on average zero impact on the attainment of children. Now as I told my audience that doesn’t mean we should sack all classroom assistants. But it does mean better training, preparation and management are needed to enable the 220,000 of TAs in our schools (costing the public purse over £2 billion a year) to help our children learn.

Sadly this nuance was lost as the discussion descended into an increasingly fractious argument. No amount of caveats and constructive comments could calm the enraged ranks of TAs. All they could see was an attack on their livelihoods. I returned to London that Friday afternoon feeling like I had been mauled in a playground fight.

This admittedly was one of the more contentious toolkit talks I have given to schools during the last two years. The experience highlighted the potential evidence has to improve practise and policy, and the power a succinct accessible summary of research can have. But it also demonstrated the huge challenge of enabling evidence to actually impact on classroom practise in a constructive and useful way.

I’ve been reflecting on all this, as I prepare a talk for an Institute of Education this week on how research can impact on policy and practise.

What I will say will seem blindingly obvious, but is almost universally ignored. My ‘take home’ message is that we must acknowledge the fundamental cultural differences between the worlds of media, academe, policy and practise – if we are to reach the promised land of evidence based practise. We must recognise that communication is as an academic might say a ‘highly non-trivial task’.

Each of these worlds has its own jargon, beliefs, rules, aims. Like working with different countries, we need to embark on genuine translation and efforts from all sides to make it work.

As a former news editor, my one piece of advice to reporters was to spend as much time on the writing and presentation of articles, as gathering the news itself. What’s the point if no-one will read what you have found? I now hold the same view for the work of an education foundation: our toolkit has been successful as we spent many hours thinking carefully about how to present the often abstract and complex findings of education research.

But after years of working with schools, I’m afraid I’ve had to re-assess this rule. To affect genuine change – this is just the start: much more has to be done, and in the schools themselves. Powerfully presented evidence isn’t enough. There are countless examples of things we know work, but fail to embrace. We don’t do exercise – even though we know it’s good for us. Doctors still fail to wash their hands regularly – the most simple of medical safeguards.

For evidence-based education to work, we will need to free up time for teachers to consider research. We may need to create research leaders in every school. Inspectors may need to encourage the use of evidence more when they visit schools.

This I’m glad to say is the increasing pre-occupation of the Education Endowment Foundation as it strives to find out what works in schools. It won’t be an easy task: as with the assembled TAs during my talk, we all tend not to want to listen to evidence that confronts our own prejudices – even when the messenger has the best of intentions.

A meeting to remember

James Turner reports on a discussion between students on the Sutton Trust US Programme and Mrs Heinz Kerry, wife of the US Secretary of State

There are some meetings which will live with you for a lifetime, some which give you a renewed conviction for your work and for life in general.  Last week we were fortunate enough to host a round-table with Theresa Heinz Kelly – IMG_5295_resizedbusinesswoman, philanthropist and wife of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry – for participants on our US university programme.  For many of us, this was one such meeting.

Mrs Heinz Kerry found time in her hectic London schedule (she’d flown in the day before from Istanbul and was heading home the day after) to spend over an hour talking to our students – asking them about their own university choices and offering them advice on education and career paths. The conversation ranged widely; Mrs Heinz Kerry also gave us tantalising glimpses into a whole range of areas of her academic, philanthropic and professional life, from her efforts to combat apartheid in South Africa to her concerns for the environment.  Wisdom and common sense peppered her remarks, and the consensus was she was an impressive and inspiring lady.

As the discussion closed, and Mrs Heinz Kerry was saying goodbye to the students, I reflected that this has been an extraordinary journey for the Trust, our partners the Fulbright Commission and, of course, for the young people who have been on the Sutton Trust US programme.IMG_5306_resized

Eighteen months ago we were sitting in Millbank Tower planning the initiative – tea for us Brits, Diet Coke for our American colleagues – asking just what could be achieved by a non-profit in such a competitive space, and wondering whether more than a handful of our students would be successful in gaining admission. Yet here we were, in Millbank Tower again, almost 20 of our students bound for US universities this autumn, accessing millions of dollars of aid, with one of the most influential women in the world taking a genuine interest in what we’ve achieved.

For the young people themselves, many had never seriously thought about studying in the US until they saw our programme – and even then, it seemed a very distant prospect indeed.  But, thanks to the exceptional efforts of those involved in running the scheme and their own sheer hard work, we now have ordinary (in the best sense of the word) state school students heading to some of the highest ranked US universities in the world.  The don’t live in million pound houses or attend elite schools; they simply have talent and motivation and that has shone through.

IMG_5313_resizedIt is a high bar we have set ourselves for this year’s group of 150, who we’ll be taking to MIT and Yale in the summer.  But having met many of those young people over Easter at our selection residential, I am confident we have a great starting point for this year’s programme. There were some exceptional young people with some incredible stories, a voracious appetite for learning and for expanding their horizons.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if, amongst them, we have some future leaders of the likes of Mrs Heinz Kerry.

Are boys the losers with tuition fees?

Conor Ryan considers the lessons from this week’s report by the Independent Commission on Fees.

Students are well into the first year of higher tuition fees. While 54,000 fewer young people started university in 2012 than in 2011, the Government has been congratulating itself that the dip was not much greater.

And the water has been muddied by the changes in student controls that took effect just as the £9000 fee cap was introduced. Moreover, this year’s applications suggest that there is some improvement on last year’s dip.

So is all well in the world of higher fees?

The truth is it is too early to tell. And a new report this week from the Independent Commission on Fees highlights a number of areas where there is some cause for concern.

The first is what’s happening to boys, particularly working class boys. The Commission’s study of UCAS acceptance data has shown not only that the gender gap continues to widen, but that it appears even more pronounced in the lower participation neighbourhoods.

Women are now a third more likely to enter higher education than men and the gender gap seems to have widened as a result of the new fees regime. Among UK residents, 143,600 women aged 19 and under were accepted to English universities in 2012 compared with 118,952 young men.

This represents a decline since 2010 of 2.6% for girls and 4.0% for boys, and a 5.9% decline for girls and a 7.5% decline for boys since 2011.

But in the 40% of English neighbourhoods where university participation is lowest, there were 1700 fewer boys aged 19 and under who were accepted for places in 2012 than in 2011. This represents a decline of 5.4% in the number of young men from these areas going to university this year. By contrast, the fall in the number of young women from these neighbourhoods going to university was smaller, at just 3.7%.

Perhaps of more interest, since it discounts any surge into 2011 to avoid the higher fees, when compared with 2010, the number of young male acceptances fell by 1.4%, while young female acceptances increased by 0.9%. By contrast, between 2009 and 2010, male and female acceptances rose.

In England, while the overall change in the gender gap in the less disadvantaged neighbourhoods was 1.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2012, the overall change in the gender gap in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods was greater, at 2.3 percentage points.

Although the decline in male participation in the most advantaged neighbourhoods was even larger, 20,000 more boys go to university each year from the two top fifth neighbourhoods than from the two bottom fifth neighbourhoods.

It means that the female: male ratio is now nearly 57:43 in the less advantaged neighbourhoods whereas it is closer to 53:47 in the more advantaged neighbourhoods.

With 2013 applications, UCAS has suggested that this gap is persisting. Its January applications report noted that 18 year women remain a third more likely in England to apply to university than men, but this rises to 50 per cent in disadvantaged areas.

If this is the case, it suggests that the information about the new loan repayments may be proving more attractive to young women than to young men, or that young men from disadvantaged areas are less likely to believe that the cost of a degree is worth it. Either way, there is a challenge here for policymakers to meet.

The Commission’s new report has two other important findings that should cause policymakers to take pause. The first is the familiar data on mature students – those aged 20 and over – who had 7.6% fewer acceptances in 2012 than in 2010, more than twice the 3.3% decline for younger students as a whole.

The decision to allow part-timers to have access to student loans hasn’t seen full-timers move to part-time courses either. HEFCE has shown a dramatic drop in part-time numbers, with 105,000 fewer students since 2010, or a 40% drop.

This is important for access, as studying later is an important route to social mobility for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and it is vital that the impact of fees on this group is not neglected just because the reductions among young people are smaller.

As the new President of Birkbeck College, Baroness Bakewell, put it at the weekend:

“Part-time study is crucial for our society. It improves skills and kick-starts new careers – exactly what we need for the economy, employers and individuals during these difficult economic times. In response to the dramatic downturn in part-time students nationwide, unprecedented support is needed now to ensure part-time study thrives in future.”

And the other key finding is perhaps a warning shot at this stage, but one that will need closer scrutiny as the university-level data becomes clear.

While there has been an increase in the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged areas going to the least selective universities, there has been minimal improvement in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust’s list of the 30 more selective universities (which includes the 24 Russell Group members) and a small dip in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust 13 most selective group.

While the only rises to the Sutton Trust 30 were in the lower participation neighbourhoods, the only quintile showing a dip in acceptances to the Sutton Trust 13 was the lowest participation group. This means that there is a widening gap between this group and other more advantaged areas, and those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to attend these universities than those in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

Closer scrutiny of patterns among individual selective universities will be important here. Already, there is some evidence from HESA data that in 2011, the proportion of new undergraduates from state schools and colleges at the 13 top universities slipped for the fourth year in succession.

There is clearly an important issue for the most selective universities and their recruitment from the poorest neighbourhoods – and it is one that the Sutton Trust will return to shortly. The Trust has also commissioned the Institute of Fiscal Studies to examine the potential impact of students leaving university with debts likely to exceed £40,000 on their ability to afford graduate study, buying a house, and having children. Their findings will be published later this year.

So, the truth is that the jury is still out on fees. We need to see whether these findings for 2012 become clearer trends in the next few years. It is vital, meanwhile, that Government, universities and schools do all they can to reach young people with the ability and potential to benefit from university, particularly in areas where university participation is already low.