Hundreds of millions of pounds of British taxpayers' money are being spent on flagship education programmes without evidence that they actually work, academics have warned.
The approach of England's schools inspectorate, Ofsted, to school improvement is not supported by research, and the Teach First scheme has been funded despite an "outrageous" lack of evidence as to whether it is effective, it has been claimed. Serious concern has also been raised about insufficient research into the effectiveness of academies.
Professor Robert Coe, whose work on school standards has been cited by education secretary Michael Gove, told a major conference on research in education that practice in schools needed to be more closely linked to academic analysis. Ofsted, he said, was "part of the problem". "It is not research based or evidence based," the director of Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring said.
According to Professor Coe, there is no proof that the watchdog's inspections and lesson observations lead to "valid" judgements. "What is the evidence about people making those kinds of judgements? Do we know that inspection creates benefits to the system?" he said. "Some studies suggested that, actually, schools take a long time to recover from inspections and they don't do any good, and yet we are spending I don't know how many millions on Ofsted . and the whole point of it is to raise standards. So let's see some evidence."
In a TES interview, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw described the claims as "tosh and nonsense". He said new figures released this week, showing a 9 percentage point rise in the proportion of schools judged to be good or outstanding (see panel, page 9), proved that the watchdog's tougher inspection regime had "galvanised the system".
But speaking at the ResearchED conference in London last weekend, Professor Coe questioned the basis of the watchdog's verdicts and said it needed to demonstrate that its lesson observations were valid. Classroom observation in general was the "next Brain Gym" because there was no scientific evidence to show that it led to better learning, he said.
But Sir Michael said: "I don't know of any headteacher who doesn't believe that classroom observation isn't anything other than a help. The fact that we are an inspectorate and we do make judgements has made a huge amount of difference."
Speaking at the same conference, Dr Rebecca Allen, from the University of London's Institute of Education, said that Teach First had been fully funded (under the previous Labour government) without a proper evaluation of its benefits.
It had been introduced in schools that were the subject of other initiatives, making it hard to establish which scheme was responsible for any improvements. She said there should have been a randomised control trial to allow better assessment of the scheme. "Given that Teach First received a load of government money, I think that they should have been required to do it," she said.
Dr Allen has recently published a paper suggesting that Teach First improves results in participating schools. But the lack of a random trial meant that the study could not be perfect, she said. More work was also needed to see whether the "relatively expensive" teacher training programme represented value for money.
She added that there had been no research on which students within the schools were benefiting from the scheme. "Given how much money has been spent on Teach First, I think it is rather outrageous that we don't know the answer to this question."
Meanwhile, a former policy adviser to Mr Gove decried the dearth of UK research into the effectiveness of the academies programme. Sam Freedman said that there had been only two studies, both from the same source, into the effectiveness of the state-funded, independent schools despite the policy being at least a decade old. Instead he had to draw on around 200 studies on US charter schools, he said.
Mr Freedman told the conference that it was "quite hard" for governments to research policies before implementation. "By the time the two years (to complete a study) are up, you are not going to be there," he said.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Our major reforms, which are improving the lives of children and young people, are underpinned by a substantial programme of research and evaluation." The government was also working with teachers on how to make education more evidence based, and was monitoring the impact of academies, she added.
Read the Sir Michael Wilshaw interview at news.tes.co.uk
Good and bad