The 7 things 100 RCTs tell us about the attainment gap

As she takes the helm at the EEF, Becky Francis shares key findings from its 100 randomised controlled trials

Becky Francis

Closing the attainment gap: Findings from Education Endowment Foundation research

Every school or workplace is different, but the first job of any new leader is the same: to understand the institution they have inherited.

As the new chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), I’ve relished this task. Since its creation in 2011, the EEF has built an incredible reputation as an organisation with both a clear mission and method: supporting schools to close the disadvantage gap by generating quality evidence and getting it into the hands of teachers so they can put it to good use.

I’m also lucky to join the EEF just as we hit a special milestone: this month, we’ll publish the findings from our 100th randomised controlled trial (RCT). The scale of the EEF’s programme of practical research: funding 200 high-potential projects involving more than half of all schools in England (as well as many early years and post-16 settings) and reaching 1.5 million young people – is unprecedented anywhere in the world.

I led the delivery of one of these 100 RCTs in my previous role at the UCL Institute of Education and know that each trial result is the culmination of a collaborative effort involving hundreds of teachers, school leaders, evaluators and pupils.  The experience of this huge collaborative effort underlined for me the value of working in partnership with schools – every result represents a shared effort to improve learning, and the generosity of teachers to share their knowledge with others for others to build on so that the profession grows as a whole.

Positive, negative or no impact: every result is a valuable addition to our understanding of "what works", and one of my most enjoyable induction tasks has been digging into the other 99.

Here are just seven messages about closing the attainment gap that I’ve drawn from the EEF’s published evaluations:

1. We have to start early, before the attainment gap truly takes hold

The EEF’s evaluation of Nuffield Early Language Intervention, involving 350 children across 34 schools, shows the prize on offer for improving the quality of early years provision. Delivered by teaching assistants, it used targeted sessions in listening, narrative and vocabulary skills to improve the spoken language ability of children with low language skills. The evaluators found it improved learning by an additional four months.

2. Smart-talking pupils should be encouraged

The impact of high-quality talk has been demonstrated in multiple EEF trials, not just in the early years. The Dialogic Teaching project, involving 5,000 pupils across 78 schools, encouraged pupils to reason, discuss, argue and explain within the classroom. On average, participating pupils made two additional months' progress.

3. Teaching assistants can have a real impact, but schools have to use them well

When teaching assistants are well-trained and deployed, they have huge potential to improve pupil outcomes. Our trial of First Class at Number, involving 532 children across 130 schools, was one of a group of projects funded as part of the EEF’s £5 million campaign to support schools to maximise the impact of support staff, a resource which costs £5 billion nationally.

4. The simplest solutions can often make the biggest difference

It may seem obvious, but whether delivered by teaching assistants, class teachers or tutors, the impact of small-group tuition is clear. Tutor Trust provides affordable tuition delivered by trained university students to schools across the North West of England. In the EEF’s trial of 1,201 pupils across 105 schools, children who received tutoring made an average of three months' additional progress.

5. Memory matters

The EEF’s dedicated neuroscience round, co-funded with the Wellcome Trust, has generated a number of fascinating findings. Our trial of Improving Working Memory, developed by a team at the University of Oxford and involving 1,500 pupils across 127 schools, sought to improve the working memory of pupils in Year 3. The evaluators found it improved learning by three additional months.

6. Teachers shouldn’t underestimate the power of feedback, but getting it right is key

Feedback and formative assessment have rightly been the focus of multiple trials. The Embedding Formative Assessment project, involving 140 schools and 25,000 pupils, shows why. The project, developed by a team including Professor Dylan Wiliam, improved GCSE outcomes by two additional months' progress, and had a particularly positive impact on low-attaining pupils.

7. Evaluating structural change is hard

The timetable is the nemesis of trials in schools. Teensleep aimed to test whether later start times would lead to improved outcomes for secondary-aged pupils, based on the insight that teenagers’ circadian rhythms may affect learning. However, recruiting schools to the project was impossible. To answer more structural questions in the future, such as the impact of a shorter key stage 3, the EEF is now considering a broader range of research designs.

Professor Becky Francis is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation

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Becky Francis

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