The White Paper – Why ‘What Works’ is not so straightforward

Professor Trevor Cooling, Director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research in the Faculty of Education, takes a look at the recent white paper and argues that mass academisation is just one of the concerns the public should have.

machine blueprintWho could possibly argue with Nicky Morgan’s vision of education demonstrated in Educational Excellence Everywhere?  I started my teaching career in 1974 and I have no doubt that the education children experience now is vastly superior to that offered then. I am therefore happy to give two cheers for academisation, largely because the initiative aspires to raise expectations as to what children can achieve. I also welcome the White Paper’s acknowledgement of the importance of character development through education. All-in-all I applaud the aspiration that children should be given every opportunity to fulfil their potential in life. Educational excellence everywhere as a concept is a great vision. Maybe my two cheers mean that I am not part of Michael Gove’s infamous Blob!

Critics of the White Paper have mainly attacked the political/ideological underpinnings of academisation. I certainly share their concerns about the privatisation and marketisation of education. However there are some other shortcomings in Nicky Morgan’s vision of educational excellence about which I have seen little comment. Here are four.

Academisation and autonomy

I am bemused by the idea of forcing all schools to become academies in the cause of autonomy even if they do not want to go down that path. I have a friend who, in her early thirties, has just been appointed head of a small, village Church of England primary school. The academy model just does not seem appropriate for someone like her or for her school. Forcing them to change seems a strange understanding of autonomy. Autonomy is a great ideal. However I am unconvinced that this White Paper is, in fact, promoting autonomy.

Whose autonomy are we talking about? It seems to me that the autonomy is primarily for certain so-called great leaders who can deliver the Government’s agenda in relation to performance. My fear is that we will increasingly see academy chains and MATs led by powerful and personally ambitious individuals who will ride rough-shod over teacher autonomy requiring them to deliver formulaic solutions to achieve fast turnaround. I’m also not sure we’re talking about parental autonomy and voice, which, with the removal of the requirement for parent governors, seems to be under attack.

I am very worried about the model of leadership that appears to lie behind the White Paper; the concept of drive seems to be fundamental to it. I watched the Steve Jobs film for the first time the other day – to me this White Paper feels like a charter for educational versions of Jobsianism.

The whole notion of autonomy is contradicted by the requirement that schools have to make choices that the government agrees with. We are told that teachers and leaders should be “equipped to make these choices on the best evidence from the UK and abroad about what really works” (paragraph 2.55). That word really is very ominous. In whose judgment I wonder?

Evidence-based teaching and the concept of ‘what works’

Which leads to my second concern, which is with the underpinning philosophy behind the notion of evidence for what works, a theme that threads though the White Paper. Who, of course, would not want teaching to be ‘evidence-based’? Who would not want to employ approaches that ‘work’? All basic common sense!


The Government appears to be listening to one version as to what constitutes ‘best evidence’, as Ben Goldacre features prominently. Apparently, on his authority, we all now know that the gold standard for knowing what works in education are randomised controlled trials (RCTs).  The seemingly certain knowledge generated by these will be propagated by seven What Works Centres spread around the country. And what is Goldacre’s authority to speak in all this? Well it is his vast experience in medical clinical trials; not teaching and learning. So the model for testing whether pills work is to be the model for testing whether approaches to teaching work. That is apparently what is meant by evidence-based teaching in the White Paper.

But why is the voice of Ben Goldacre as to ‘what works’ superior to that of, for example, Professor Robin Alexander and his team at the Cambridge Primary Review. Perhaps because Alexander is judged to be a member of the Blob?

There are significant problems with this mono-focal view of evidence of ‘what works’. The type of research advocated by Goldacre and RCTs is positivist. In education this is focussed on attempting to replicate the ‘closed’ laboratory environment in the ‘open’ and complex classroom environment through isolating and controlling specific variables and events. However, as Brad Shipway perceptively comments:

The situation of educational research in open systems impacts significantly upon what enquiry can be expected to achieve in the field of education. Completely decisive and replicable test situations are ‘in principle impossible’, meaning that the process of theory development needs to be ‘exclusively explanatory and non-predictive’”. (p163)

The BBC programme Chinese School, broadcast in late 2015, is perhaps a good example of the White Paper’s preferred approach to evidence. The programme was promoted as a ‘scientific’ experiment designed to ‘prove’ whether a Chinese or a British approach to education works best. The experiment consisted of five Chinese teachers taking over a group of fifty volunteer teenagers at a secondary school in Hampshire and teaching them using Chinese methods. These included a twelve-hour day starting at 7am, flag ceremonies, traditional teaching methods, rote-learning in large classes and strict discipline. The control group that made the experiment scientific was the rest of the year group, who were taught the same topics by their usual British teachers using the teaching methods normally employed by the school.

At the end of the experiment all the pupils sat the same test. The final episode included a dramatic unveiling of the test results; the Chinese school won!  So now we all know that Chinese teaching works best because of the evidence base. Or do we?  Unfortunately, this is a reductionist understanding of human learning which presumes that methods to test what works in the relatively straightforward environment of a controlled scientific experiment are appropriate in the complex environment of a school classroom. They are not. There are other voices that need to be heard when it comes to judging what works in children’s learning.

Perhaps I may be being slightly unfair (hear the irony!) After all, paragraph 6.4 of EEE does cite research other than by Goldacre: ‘best evidence’ about ‘what works’ in reading comes from two researchers (not just one!) in one American study on reading books about baseball. This may be a cynical comment, but it does feel as though the research on what works cited in the White Paper has been cherry-picked rather systematically reviewed.


The government’s vision for ‘what works’ teaching, could lead us to think that behaviourist models of being a learner underpin the White Paper, which would be the antipathy of our university’s transformational vision. Fortunately we are reassured by paragraph 6.7, being told that ‘culture’ is an essential part of every child’s education. No ‘best evidence’ is offered for this conclusion though. Nor are we told what culture is, but it appears to be arts, music and, no doubt, Shakespeare.  But then that is countered by the paragraphs on page 93 with its notion of ‘facilitating subjects’ (6.26) followed by two paragraphs emphasizing STEM subjects. So maybe ‘culture’ is not that important after all?

And finally, Religious Education

I am an RE teacher by background. Given the threat of religious extremism one would have expected the Government to value RE’s contribution to children’s education. But it seems not. The White Paper dismantles local control of education in favour of academisation with no-one apparently noticing that this effectively torpedoes RE as a subject. This is because statutory RE is locally controlled with the legal responsibility for drawing up the syllabus held by the local authority. So without even mentioning it by name, the White Paper undermines RE, possibly fatally. And no-one in government appears to have realised that.

All in all I am very concerned that there is an underpinning  view behind the White Paper which interprets the key concepts of knowledge, ‘best evidence’,  ‘works well’ and leadership in narrow, reductionist ways that resonate with the questionable and  long discredited logical positivist school of thought. This reductionism is, I suggest, the hidden threat to children’s flourishing as learners that is embedded in this White Paper.

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