How are schools using evidence-based strategies?

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Do you go by intuition, by what your neighbouring school does or what you’ve always done? Or, do you use the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit to guide your decisions? Recent research has outlined what schools are using and why. Suzanne O’Connell reports

In May 2011, the Sutton Trust published its first Teaching and Learning Toolkit in conjunction with Durham University to identify interventions that work in education. A range of different strategies such as the use of teaching assistants, homework and one-to-one tuition were ranked according to their impact on attainment, the strength of evidence, and how much they cost.

Subsequently the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was established to manage and maintain the online toolkit. Now the report, Best in Class 2018: Evidence, funding and school reform in England and the United States, gives us an idea of just how much schools and their leaders are engaging with the EEF toolkit.

The report outlines the result of research commissioned by the Sutton Trust using a survey of teachers and school leaders in England and the United States. The research involved 1,246 state school teachers in England and 501 teachers in the US public school system. The research focuses on three areas: attitudes to evidence and “what works” in school decision-making, how targeted money for less well-off pupils is spent, and perceptions of charter schools and academy trusts among teachers. This article focuses on the information provided about practices in England.

Use of evidence in school decision-making

The use of Sutton Trust materials has grown in popularity since 2012. Now 59 per cent of school leaders and 23 per cent of teachers use it to inform their practice. It has been made clear to school leaders that the strategies they use should be proven to work and leaders recognise the value given to the EEF materials.

However, they are not the most popular method of making decisions. Past experience of what works is still, by far, the most popular method with 81 per cent of senior leaders and 60 per cent of classroom teachers making their decisions this way. Learning what works in other schools is also popular, with 66 per cent of senior leaders and 53 per cent of classroom teachers mentioning this approach.

Spending of targeted money

The researchers found that early interventions are the highest priority for spending money targeted at disadvantaged students. Thirty one per cent of teachers in England referred to this as the priority. Ways the money is spent according to school leaders include:

  1. Early intervention schemes (38 per cent).
  2. Hiring of teaching assistants (22 per cent for primary schools).
  3. Increased one-to-one tuition for disadvantaged pupils (10 per cent).

Improving feedback was only mentioned by four per cent of respondents and the authors point out that it is “a relatively inexpensive measure that could add eight months to pupils’ learning”. It was also noted that peer-to-peer tutoring schemes, which are also cost-effective, have relatively little take-up. Peer-to-peer mentoring usually includes older pupils helping younger pupils to learn, but only one per cent mentioned this as a strategy they use. However, school leaders did acknowledge that Pupil Premium funding is being used to prop up their budget and the number using it in this way has grown in the last couple of years from 30 per cent in 2017 to 34 per cent in 2018.

Perceptions of academy trusts

The researchers found that 30 per cent of academy leaders in England feel that academy autonomy has no effect in the classroom and 18 per cent even went as far as to say that it had a negative effect. Only 27 per cent of those who actually work in academies think that they have a beneficial effect.

Where teachers did indicate that it had had a positive influence, freedom over the curriculum (59 per cent) was mentioned as the reason, followed by allocation of resources (57 per cent). Increased collaboration between schools came in third with 45 per cent.

It is interesting that teachers in England who didn’t work in academies were more likely to indicate freedom from bureaucracy as a benefit than those working in them. This suggests that the perceived benefits are greater from the outside.

What the EEF tells us works

This report is a reminder that it isn’t school structure that is most important but the individual teacher in the classroom. The strategies that teachers use are vital to school improvement and the main message here is that evidence should be used to secure the right approaches for the maximum benefit at the least cost.

The most effective strategies identified by the EEF and Sutton Trust include:

  • Feedback – high impact (+8 months of progress) for very low cost.
  • Metacognition and self-regulation – high impact (+7) for very low cost.
  • Reading comprehension strategies – high impact (+6) for very low cost.
  • Collaborative learning – moderate impact (+5) for very low cost.
  • Mastery learning – moderate impact (+5) for very low cost.
  • Oral language interventions – moderate impact (+5) for very low cost.
  • Peer tutoring – moderate impact (+5) for very low cost.

Feedback

This is the information given to the learner that aims towards improvement. It can be verbal, written or through tests and covers a wide range of aspects of the learning process. The toolkit describes the process of giving effective feedback as “challenging” but suggests that feedback should:

  • Be specific, accurate and clear.
  • Compare what a learner is doing now with what they have done before.
  • Encourage and support further effort, being given sparingly so that it is meaningful.
  • Provide specific guidance on how to improve.
  • Providing effective feedback is likely to require sustained professional development and can come from peers as well as adults.

Metacognition and self-regulation

Metacognition and self-regulation aim to help pupils think about their own learning more explicitly. There are three essential components:

  • Cognition – the mental process involved in knowing, understanding and learning.
  • Metacognition – can be defined as “learning to learn”.
  • Motivation – willingness to engage.

Overall, this approach requires the learner to take more responsibility for their own learning and know what is required to succeed.

To implement this approach practitioners should consider:

  • Teaching strategies to help pupils plan, monitor and evaluate.
  • How to encourage this kind of discussion in class.
  • Modelling their own thinking.
  • Teaching pupils how to organise and manage their own learning.

Guidance on how to apply this approach in class is included in an EEF paper, Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning (April 2018).

Reading comprehension strategies

These focus on the learner’s understanding of written text and includes:

  • Inferring meaning from context.
  • Summarising or identifying key points.
  • Using graphic or semantic organisers.
  • Developing questioning strategies.
  • Monitoring their own comprehension and identifying difficulties themselves.

It is interesting to note that the toolkit recommends that schools use a blend of different approaches that include reading comprehension alongside phonics and oral language. It states: “Comparative findings indicate that, reading comprehension approaches appear to be more effective than Phonics or oral language approaches for upper primary and secondary pupils, for both short-term and long-term impact.”

It acknowledges that struggling readers are likely to require a combination of approaches and that “no particular strategy should be seen as a panacea, and careful diagnosis of the reasons why an individual pupil is struggling should guide the choice of intervention strategies”.

A word of caution

However, there is a word of caution. Strategies can have different results in different contexts. Factors such as the teacher’s own belief in the strategy they are using and the effectiveness of the teacher themselves can all make a significant difference to any approach that is adopted.

The EEF materials provide interesting and thought-provoking indications of what schools might beneficially do but they must be used in a context that is supportive of them. The fact that school leaders are struggling to balance their budgets and that an increasing number are turning to sources such as the Pupil Premium just to keep afloat is a worrying issue highlighted in this research.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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