Book review: Evidence-based leadership and management

A well ordered and refreshingly honest guide to evidence-based practice

David James

A well ordered and refreshingly honest guide to evidence-based practice

Evidence-based leadership and management: A practical guide

Author: Gary Jones

Publisher: Sage Publications

Details: 272 pages, £19.99

ISBN: 9781526411686

The research-based (or evidence-informed) movement in teaching is barely five years old, but already it is beginning to feel like the new educational establishment. It resembles a staffroom Momentum: once the preserve of people happy to give up their Saturdays for their cause,  their events now welcome ministers and chief inspectors. It is a global network, generating a small library of books, and countless blogs and articles all proclaiming that its adherents are trying to figure out what works in order to introduce it in the classroom.

In many ways, the movement was a much-needed corrective to the termly dross that was inflicted on teachers by senior leaders returning from school holidays: Brain Gym, VAK, triple marking – you can add your own fads that sucked you of your optimism as quickly as your coffee cooled. Each was puddle-deep in their evidence base, but that didn’t stop endless “school consultants” claiming that whatever snake oil they were selling were the latest answers to our troubles. They never were.  

But if you are going to claim that what you are doing works then, eventually, school leaders who invest time and budgets in supporting staff who want to explore this approach to teaching and learning are going to start asking where is the evidence that this works? Does it get better results for students?  Because if it doesn’t, what’s the point in doing it?  

Enter Gary Jones, a stalwart of evidence-based teaching. As titles go, Jones’s book is not the most eye-catching; that said, it is certainly one of the most carefully structured, with chapter outlines, various subsections, summaries of each chapter broken down into key points, and lots of references. It is as if Jones, when thinking of something as messy and unclassifiable as teaching, has attempted to impose order, utility and form to each stage of the process, underpinning every claim with layer upon layer of proof.

Dylan Wiliam has argued that teaching is never likely to become an evidence-based profession and Jones is brave enough to acknowledge many of the reasons why this has some justification. Where do school leaders find the time to think about the “16 sub-domains” that apply to every aspect of running the whole school (not just teaching)? Jones does include acronyms to make strategies more memorable and user-friendly, ranging from PICOT, to CIMO and even SPICE (whether the last one zombifies teachers through repeated usage is, sadly, not addressed).

That said, there is at times a pungent honesty about Jones: he thinks evidence-based practice should challenge professional “bullshit” (his technical term) which, he argues, is “a greater enemy of truth than lies are”. Anyone who knows anything about decision-making in schools will say “amen” to that. And his chapters on appraising research evidence and school data, dry though they can be at times, are nonetheless genuinely useful, cutting through much of the static that often surrounds these subjects because they are rooted in a sympathetic understanding of how schools work. Whether that means those schools share the goals that Jones identifies is open to question, but he is consistent in what he argues, and why it should matter.

Surprisingly, he can slip into generalisations that cannot be supported by evidence: to claim that “evidence-based school leaders are hardworking, committing time and effort towards ensuring the right thing is done in the right way” idealises them unnecessarily; furthermore, making claims for this style of leadership as being intrinsically ethical in its approach raises interesting questions about those school leaders who do not subscribe to this approach for any number of reasons. How should these be classified? In schools it is often divisive and reductive to claim that one approach trumps another, or that false dichotomies (such as trad and prog) exist only so that one can be rejected on absolutist terms. In schools, context matters, and what works in one may not work in another.

Teaching is complex, and books such as Jones’s articulate just how difficult it can be for school leaders to make the right decisions at the right time to benefit the most students. But in many ways, it is a straightforward job, predicated as it is on something as obvious and demanding as improving the life chances of the children we teach. The tools we have in measuring such things remain stubbornly blunt, and can be found in examination results, league tables, and inspection reports, but it is among such prosaic, imperfect evidence-informed judgements that all movements, new and old, will be ultimately judged. If it works, the students will benefit, if they don’t, it doesn’t.  

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School

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David James picture

David James

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London

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