When it comes to the UK’s problem with social mobility, the evidence is all around us, says Lee Elliot Major; not least in the news headlines, currently dominated by the dubious dealings of our 20th Etonian prime minister.
But could a bit of Bananarama be the answer to levelling the playing field?
It could help, says Major, the UK’s first professor of social mobility, founding trustee of the Education Endowment Foundation and former chief executive of the Sutton Trust (where he commissioned and co-authored the wildly popular Sutton Trust-EEF toolkit).
Last year he published a book entitled Social Mobility and its Enemies, and his new book, What Works: Research and evidence for successful teaching, is out on 3 October.
On the latest edition of the Tes Podagogy podcast, he explains the unlikely link between the ‘80s pop trio and increasing the attainment of young people who are being left behind.
“There’s a long tail of underachievement [in the UK],” he explains. “That’s a number of children, around 20 per cent at least, who leave school without basic literacy or numeracy.
“And it's young people from similar families. Often it will be parents who themselves have come out of school without any any sort of basic skills, or even, indeed, grandparents. There's an intergenerational challenge there.”
And to begin to overcome it, he explains, teachers need to think like Bananarama.
Quick listen: Why there is no such thing as an unteachable child
Want to know more? After-school clubs need care and attention
“The Bananarama principle comes from my colleague, Steve Higgins,” he continues. “It says ‘It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it’ that counts.
“In the toolkit, we have a number of strategies we look at – setting by ability, one-to-one tutoring, reducing class sizes and so on – but what you find is that there is a bigger variation within each strand than between them.
“Effective feedback is something that comes up really highly in the toolkit, for example, and we look into that in the book. But it's really hard to do. So even though it's a good bet, when it’s done poorly, it can actually lead to poor outcomes.
“It’s a really important idea. It shows that you can have the best evidence-informed programme in the world, but if it's not delivered properly and effectively, it won't work that well.”
Education research: It's the way that you do it
There are countless other examples of the Bananarama principle in the book, Major explains, including a particularly controversial finding on the use of teaching assistants.
“We found that, on average, they had zero impact on attainment. I always remember having to present that in Cambridge, on the last day of term, in front 200 TAs, and no matter how much I put caveats on that finding, it was received...interestingly. They threw a few things.
“But there the point wasn't that we should sack all TAs, the point was that managed well, trained well, and working well with teachers, TAs could have an amazing impact on pupils. It was again, how you deploy TAs, not whether you do or not.
“This all speaks to the limits of evidence in the classroom: it will never solve all the issues. It's going to help you as a teacher to think through what you might do in the classroom, but it's never going to answer everything.”
And in the process of studying attainment, he continues, he has found that his ideas on the topic have evolved.
“In the book, which was originally around what works for improving attainment, we came full circle,” he explains.
“We said, actually, in many ways, we need to spend as much time thinking about other skills as well as attainment, particularly for disadvantaged young people.”
Social mobility: how much can schools do?
He references the many non-academic elements that can boost young people’s life chances, from breakfast clubs, to free eyewear, sleep training, access to arts and sports, development social of social and emotional skills, and parenting programmes.
“I worry, because I think how much can schools do?” he continues. “But at the moment the reality is they're being asked to do these things. So we probably need a bit more discussion around which programmes are most effective.
“Most teachers, I hope, would agree that schooling isn't just about key core attainment, it's also about preparing people for life. I think the system has got skewed too far to the attainment side of things. What we want is a school system that nurtures more than just attainment.”
You can listen to the podcast on the player above or by typing 'Tes - the education podcast' into your podcast player (including Spotify)