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'Good research is good - but experience is better'

Research doesn't offer schools a panacea – it is often so indigestible as to be of little use to teachers, says Joe Nutt

Educational research is often so dense that it is of little use to teachers, writes Joe Nutt

Research doesn't offer schools a panacea – it is often so indigestible as to be of little use to teachers, says Joe Nutt

I’m busy carrying out what my client organisation calls a “landscape review”. It involves a lot of reading, which for an ex-English teacher ought to be a joy, except that this particular kind of reading would turn a Year 11 class full of bookworms into bonfire-builders. It does, however, occasionally throw up a gem of real wisdom, such as this one: “The only way to stop a bad guy with data is a good guy with data.” In a forest of research so tinder dry, when an adjective drifts into view it feels as though someone’s handed me a gin and tonic.

All this reviewing of the education landscape has brought something into sharp relief: how paradoxical it is. There are teachers delighted to hear that the government really is taking action to stem the recruitment and retention crisis. These are lined up against others who are livid that recent NQTs are going to be financially rewarded for sticking at it. There are teaching leaders no doubt storing broken desks ready for the barricades over school funding who are equally angry when the government funds bursaries for shortage subjects. A widespread plea for more CPD links arms with a blanket rejection of anyone describing themselves as an educational “consultant”. Who else designs and delivers credible CPD? Traffic wardens? 

Amidst all this contradiction, there is one thread of educational thinking that has somehow managed to win over most people, including government: the conviction that if you intend to act to improve schools, you really should provide the evidence. It’s a conviction that has international support. But the wonk who came up with “the only way to stop a bad guy with data is a good guy with data” was really on to something.

Good data versus bad data

Plenty of voices have embraced the uncomfortable truth that research evidence is no panacea. Research evidence is frequently every bit as dense and resistant to interpretation as a politician on College Green with a microphone in their face.

I’m rarely surprised at how often good researchers hedge their conclusions so carefully, stopping short of that Holy Grail, causation. Skilled statisticians know only too well the slippery quality of the data they’re dependent on. My tour of the landscape is amusing me as well as informing me. When a research paper uses the number of bowling alleys in a locality as a proxy indicator of social capital…well how would you respond?

If all this is starting to sound a bit defeatist, then consider something more uplifting. That bad guy with data might well come up against a good guy with data, but how much better for all the teachers whom they are trying to influence if what confronts them is credible and demonstrable experience? Let me give you an example; the aptly named Gini Coefficient.

This is a magical measure of national income frequently used by technocrats and researchers seeking to influence educational policymakers, and hence you. A country scores 0 when everybody has identical incomes and 1 when all the income goes to only one person. It stands at an average of 0.315 in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, exceeding 0.4 in the US and Turkey and approaching 0.5 in Chile and Mexico. Putting aside the idea that such a measure is credibly calculated in nations as different as the UK and the US, never mind the UK and the United Arab Emirates, experience tells me that it is of no value whatsoever to any teacher working in a famous English public school, a local authority school, multi-academy trust or a village primary school with one class in Cumbria. It is irrelevant educationally.

For as long as I can remember, most educational research has been conducted as though generic, pedagogical skills and behaviours were all that mattered. "A teacher is a teacher, no matter where or what they teach" has been the tacit assumption behind literally tons of research, as well as endless hours of conferences and CPD for decades.

Experience as a secondary school teacher, and as what I’m afraid I can only honestly term a “consultant” working in primary schools, has taught me that the two roles have precious few similarities of any significance. Conflating these two roles has probably done more to hinder school improvement internationally than any other single cause. A secondary school teacher who isn’t first and foremost a subject scholar is either on supply or is just another adult in the classroom. Don’t ask me what a primary teacher is because I don’t have the experience. I could hazard a guess, a bit like the bad guy with the data, but it wouldn’t be worth much.

Finally, looking back across that paradoxical landscape, my experienced eye as a teacher, a consultant, a school governor and a researcher tells me something that no amount of data dumped on my head is likely to dispel.

If government really believes what former education secretary Justine Greening said in 2017, that teachers are “the key agents of improvement across our system”, which led directly to the emphasis on curriculum and knowledge in schools and the early careers framework, then it will instruct teacher training bodies to build basic financial training and budgeting into every qualification and every trainee.

Nothing happens in a school without money, and whether educationally effective things happen or not depends entirely on how it is spent. The sooner a trainee teacher grasps that harsh reality, the better for them, the school they work in and the children they teach. There is no genie and schools don’t get three wishes. 

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue.                   





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