A Picture of Evidence-based Education


Imagine this scenario…

The headteacher of an inner-city primary school is stuck. She has just had a meeting with her senior management team to discuss how they can do more for their struggling readers. On the positive side, everyone has contributed really well and come up with some great ideas. Her deputy has suggested that they should provide one-to-one tutoring, but she cannot be sure that the expense is worth it. The literacy leader is certain he has heard of a scheme that recruits volunteers from the community to do the same thing – he is positive he had read it in a magazine somewhere. The SEN co-ordinator thought it might be a problem with the way they are teaching all children to read, and maybe they should look for something that was more effective across the whole school. Now, to add to the confusion, her School Improvement Partner is on the phone, telling her about a really exciting pilot project running across the authority, which is using a new computer programme to help those who are struggling.

These are the types of questions that are faced every day by schools and colleges across the country, whether they are choosing a new literacy programme, developing a behaviour management strategy, or deciding to introduce a new approach to social and emotional learning.

Yet, as we begin a new decade, it is clear that education still lacks the necessary infrastructure to provide practitioners with the information they need to support their professional decision-making. Inevitably, too many important decisions about educational practice are made by best guesses and are overly influenced by politics, marketing, anecdotal evidence and tradition. It must be possible to do better than this - to be able to build on the knowledge and expertise held within research and practice so that we can stand on the shoulders of previous progress.

Evidence-based reform in education means enabling practitioners to combine their professional expertise with the best available evidence from research, in order to make informed decisions about their practice. In an evidence-based system, a body of reliable and relevant evidence on ‘what works’ would be available across a wide range of subjects, pedagogies, educational stages and contexts. Educators would be able to engage with this information in a variety of formats and be able to apply this knowledge to their everyday practice. Systems would be in place to capture the key questions and new ideas emerging from practice and feed this back to develop further, relevant research.

It is important to clarify what we mean by evidence-based education. Evidence-based education is not ‘cook book’ teaching nor is it about prescribing what goes on in schools from a position of unchallenged authority. It is about integrating professional expertise with the best available external evidence from research, to improve the quality of practice. Professional judgements will always be needed to use the findings of research in the context of individual schools and classrooms.

A policy of local responsibility

With the current trend towards decentralisation in education, teachers are going to have greater freedoms around all aspects of their practice - what to teach, which materials to use, how they group children and, most importantly, what teaching methods to adopt.

Devolution will mean that teachers will be able to choose from a myriad of different teaching programmes and approaches, with various levels of effectiveness, but all of which claim to be successful. How will they know if the claims made by publishers, academics or advocates for a given approach are true? What, or who, can they rely on to give them accurate and tested information about what works? How can they guard against being prey to anyone with an idea to sell?

Devolved power must go hand-in-hand with an obligation to make informed decisions; otherwise we will just reinvent the wheel again and again. Teachers must know what has been proven to work and in what circumstances. They must be able to trust the evidence. They have the professional skill to make sound judgements about what is best for the children they teach, but they need to be given the information and tools to do the job. This drives the overarching aim of CEBE: to empower educators with evidence