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‘Learning is not easy. But when schools work together, we can make a huge amount of progress’

Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, writes:

"Learning is rarely easy. This is true for most children, especially those from low income families. And it is true for schools. It is hard to know which approaches are worth the time and effort, and harder still to work out whether they are making a real difference.

Today, I’m writing about 238 schools which recognised that, by working together, they could learn more than would be possible alone. The Education Endowment Foundation has published the results of six investigations exploring different ways to raise the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals.  

The reports show that when a groups of schools come together to test something properly we can generate new knowledge which is valuable to all teachers.

Two studies looked at ways to train and deploy Teaching Assistants (TAs). We know from existing research that many schools have struggled to train and support TAs in ways which benefit pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. These new studies suggest some promising ways to change that. They demonstrate that TAs can improve literacy and numeracy skills when they are deployed well, for example by providing targeted one to one or small group support.

These findings on Teaching Assistants’ impact on literacy come from a study of Switch-on Reading, a 10-week programme for pupils in their first year of secondary school who did not achieve Level 4 in literacy at the end of primary school. Pupils were provided with one to one reading sessions lasting 20 minutes.

To test the impact of Switch-on Reading, 308 pupils across 19 schools, took part in a randomised controlled trial (RCT). This meant that pupils were randomly assigned to follow the Switch-on approach or to continue with normal lessons. This element of ‘randomness’ is crucial to avoid the possibility of selection biasthat can compromise evaluations. The reading levels of both groups of pupils were tested before and after the trial so their difference in progress could be measured. Later, the pupils from the comparison group also received the intervention.

As a result of this RCT we can robustly assess the impact that Switch-on Reading made. The evaluation found that, on average, pupils achieved an additional three months progress as a result of participating in the programme. Students eligible for free school meals and those previously struggling with reading made even greater additional progress. RCTs undeniably demand patience and discipline, but without this type of design it would have been very difficult to judge the real impact of Switch-on.

An evaluation of Catch Up Numeracy, a scheme of one-to-one support for pupils aged from six to 11, also demonstrates the potential of one to one support from Teaching Assistants on maths outcomes. It was trialled with 324 pupils in 54 schools over 30 weeks. Three groups were compared: one in which the pupils continued with normal lessons, one in which they participated in the programme, and one in which they were given one-to-one attention without Catch Up.

The study found that both Catch Up Numeracy and one-to-one attention led to significant gains in learning, an average of three and four months’ additional progress respectively, compared to continuing with normal lessons. However, there was little evidence that the Catch Up approach provides additional gains over and above those from one to one teaching itself. It was only by structuring the study with three comparison groups that it was possible to generate such useful information.

Other studies published look at academic summer schools, a new approach to teaching grammar in Year 7, a targeted programme of intervention in Year 6, and effective feedback.

The lessons from these six studies are important and exciting. They also represent the beginning of an even larger project, and a new source of independent evidence to help schools narrow the attainment gap. There are currently 66 further projects being funded by the EEF, involving over 2,300 schools and 500,000 pupils across England. These studies (and many more to come over the next decade) will all be publicly reported, providing a steady stream of new knowledge to help teachers and school-leaders make decisions based on the best possible evidence.

Learning is not easy. But when schools work together, with academics and programme developers alongside, we can make a huge amount of progress."

The evaluation reports are available here.


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