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The White Paper – whose evidence is it anyway?

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Following the publication of the new education white paper, Paula Stone, Senior Lecturer in Education, asks whether the government’s new found appreciation of evidence-based practice is as positive a step as it first appears.

Education Excellence Everywhere coverOn 17th March 2016, the Government published its white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere.  As a teacher educator I immediately turned to page 28, ‘Strengthening Initial Teacher Training’, where I met with the following stated intention:

‘strengthen university and school-led teacher training, increasing the rigour of ITT content with a greater focus on subject knowledge and evidence-based practice’

This is the second major, recent government document that uses the term ‘evidence-based practice’ frequently, the first being the Carter Review of ITT. Educational Excellence Everywhere uses it 27 times, including nine times in the short section about initial teacher education.

This made me think about what exactly is ‘evidence-based practice’? It is a term loosely bandied around but often never clearly defined; indeed neither of these papers gives a definition of what it actually is. Of course there are many definitions, but to me this explanation offered by Jessica Broome  is as good as any and seems appropriate for people working in education. For Broome, evidence-based practice is not just about applying academic research to practice situations. She draws on Barratt and Hodson who note:

‘The evidence-informed practitioner carefully considers what research evidence tells them in the context of a particular child, family or service, and then weighs this up alongside knowledge drawn from professional experience and the views of service users to inform decisions about the way forward.’

Like many other clinical models this model draws on three crucial elements: relevant evidence from policy and research, experience and expertise, and context. By combining these three elements, the practitioner can ensure that a range of factors – including research, experience, and importantly knowledge of the context, influences their judgement.

Broome suggests that a practitioner working in an evidence-based way would therefore be able to:

  1. Know where to get access to good quality research on these topics
  2. Actively seek out research to inform their decisions about cases (e.g. assessments, plans, recommendations etc.)
  3. Articulate key messages from research on significant topics (‘we know from research…’)
  4. Reflect on their own experiences and identify the learning
  5. Explain where their knowledge comes from (‘I know this from…’)
  6. Cite research when needed and appropriate

If the government took this kind of approach to ‘evidence-based practice’, one would think this is all very laudable and a clear move away from an agenda not wedded to the teaching of the Teachers’ Standards, but to a position that is attentive to the intellectual as well as the practical demands of being a teacher; one that is respectful of research and educational theory.

However, on page 12 of Educational Excellence Everywhere there is a stark reminder that it is only the Government’s opinion of what constitutes evidence that really matters:

‘we will strengthen ITT content, focusing on helping new teachers enter the classroom with sufficient subject knowledge, practical behaviour management skills, understanding of special educational needs, and a greater understanding of the most up-to-date research on how pupils learn. We’ll ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers’

We, in university based teacher education institutions, have known for a long time that this Government sees teacher educators as enemies of promise hell-bent on destroying schools.

So where, you might ask, will all these evidence-based teachers get their evidence from? The government’s clear preference can be found on pages 13, 24 and 39 of Educational Excellence Everywhere: The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). I have no criticisms of the EEF, although it could be questioned if it can be truly independent because of its founding grant coming from the DfE.  My concern is whether the government are equally prepared to listen to other sources of evidence. The EEF produces some good, helpful research and does promote the use of evidence-based practice, but its stated preference for randomised controlled trials means the government is clearly preferring one sort of evidence.

Education based RCTs often involve schools/groups of learners being subjected to interventions under study, usually resulting in quantitative data. Whilst this can be a useful tool for generating large amounts of data that may have national or global significance, it has been argued that this sort of data runs the risk of oversimplifying complex educational processes and practices. Where are the stories of real schools and real children? How can we find out what it is like to be a learner in the 21st Century? We should ask them – we should work with them.

However, this kind of qualitative research data can be messy and complex – even though it can present a picture in which real issues reveal themselves, it is far easier to write a policy or a set of guidelines which start from a position of generalised outcomes that can be extrapolated and applied. Thus it is far easier for the government to recommend a source of ‘firm’ evidence, a repository for ‘what works’ where individual experiences of teachers and children can be difficult to see.

So whilst I initially welcomed the Government’s increased focus on evidence-based practice, I am concerned that it is not all that it seems. Headteachers, teachers, student teachers should all be asking……whose evidence is it anyway?

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One Response to The White Paper – whose evidence is it anyway?

  1. Andrew Lambirth Tuesday, 29 March 2016 at 12:24 #

    I enjoyed your article Paula. Thanks for writing it. Your description of what ‘evidence based teaching’ can be seems right. It’s right because the professional’s role in the classroom is to make the decision in the end for the action taken in the classroom. That decision will be based on the teacher’s experience and understanding of the individual student’s needs within the given context. When the decision is taken away from the professional teacher (as we see happening in many schools) that’s when the professional nature of teaching is undermined. The importance of high-quality university based ITE is crucial to ensure this level of professional expertise.