Ben Styles, research director for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), writes:
In 2011, The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) funded a series of ‘fair tests’ in education research. Those of us who are concerned about evidence in education were pleased. In February 2013, Ben Goldacre joined forces with the Department for Education (DfE) to launch another programme of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). By now, we were beginning to think the dark days of selecting interventions in schools based on personal preference or pseudo-research were over.
Unfortunately, the education research community is still riddled with dissenting voices such as Professor Frank Furedi ['Teaching is not some clinical cure' 04/10/13]. Teachers are the most qualified to make decisions about which interventions to use in school and they should be provided with reliable evidence in order for them to make informed decisions. The present drive for more rigorous evidence may lead to real improvements if teachers understand its philosophy and make use of the evidence it provides. Last week’s article contained some misunderstandings that made it very damaging to this ultimate goal.
Professor Furedi highlights the complexity of the variables influencing teaching and learning and claims this renders RCTs pointless. In fact, this is one of the most important reasons why RCTs are necessary in education. The human body and its interactions with its environment are hugely complex and have necessitated RCTs to ensure fair testing in medicine. Interactions between pupils and teachers are at least as complicated and also require randomisation to ensure fair comparisons are made.
Experiments show us if classroom practices work by ensuring all these complex interactions are evened out between those experiencing the intervention and the control group of children. Results give rise to a plethora of programmes that teachers can choose from on the basis of potential size of impact, an understanding of what will work in their context and likely cost.
If you are a teacher who would like to spend their interventions budget on the basis of how effective programmes are rather than how heavily they are marketed, now is a great time to get involved.