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‘At some point, we have to employ a moral compass’

As director of Education Datalab, Rebecca Allen is an academic whose research packs a punch in Westminster. She talks to Charlotte Santry about grammar schools, teaching and how some heads are in danger of putting league-table performance above their pupils’ best interests

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As director of Education Datalab, Rebecca Allen is an academic whose research packs a punch in Westminster. She talks to Charlotte Santry about grammar schools, teaching and how some heads are in danger of putting league-table performance above their pupils’ best interests

This profile was first published in Tes magazine on May 5, 2017. 

Rebecca Allen doesn’t devote much energy to drawing people’s attention to the work of Education Datalab, the research organisation she co-founded two years ago.

“In the internet age it’s pretty easy, right?” she says. “You just stick up a blog post and if people want to write about it they can.”

Far from jumping up and down about its work, findings are published with remarkably little fanfare – sometimes in the middle of the night, containing language that is, to put it mildly, technical.

But Datalab has already established a reputation as one of the most authoritative voices in the education research world. Its analysis frequently packs a punch that educators and policymakers cannot ignore.

A study earlier this year – which concluded that thousands of pupils were leaving secondaries before their GCSEs to “boost the league table performance of the school” – made the mainstream media, preceded an Ofsted investigation into school “gaming” and led to the National Governors’ Association berating its own members for not doing enough to prevent the practice.

And this research into “off-rolling” is exactly where Allen’s particular interest in education currently lies. She wants to know “what happens when we try to hold schools accountable for what they do”, and is understandably proud of the impact that her organisation has made over such a thorny issue.

But that doesn’t mean it is easy. Allen says the most difficult part of her job is to tell heads things they “don’t want to hear”.

“Everyone likes to believe that everyone’s just in it for the kids, and then sometimes you see things that happen that violate that perspective,” she says, adding that the accountability system often causes headteachers to go down a certain road.

“But at some point, the profession has to employ some sort of moral compass and stand up for what is right and what is ethical in the treatment of students at their schools.”

Allen was educated at a village primary in Sussex, before moving to the local comprehensive school. She read economics and maths at the University of Cambridge and then worked as an equity research analyst at JP Morgan for two years.

Teaching experience

After completing a PGCE at the Institute of Education in London, she became a teacher, following in her mother’s footsteps.

“If you grow up with a mum who’s a teacher, it’s hard not to know about the job and be interested in schools and spend a lot of time thinking about it,” Allen reflects.

“When you’ve grown up with a teacher, I think you do see schools from a completely different perspective – in a sense from the top-down perspective of knowing how it feels to be doing that job, and the choices and the challenges that people face.”

But she admits that her own experience of teaching economics at a north London comprehensive did not quite live up to her hopes. “At the time I taught, in the school I taught, behaviour was pretty awful. And...” She pauses. “What shall I say about that? It’s tough.”

That didn’t mean she wanted to leave the profession. But while she was looking for another suitable teaching job, she noticed a poster in the IoE “that said you could apply for a scholarship to do a PhD”.

Allen applied and a successful career in academia began. Today, aged 40, she reveals that she would like to return to teaching one day, but in a primary school. And that’s not just because her own children are at that stage or because her mother was a primary teacher.

“I’ve become very interested in the brain and how it works,” Allen explains. Primary-age children, she points out, “have these kind of weird views of the world that are actually also fascinating insights into the human mind and how we make sense of things”.

Her secondary experience highlighted to her the importance of primary maths teaching. “I was getting to the point of teaching Year 7 classes who arrived with a quite unbalanced exposure to the curriculum,” she explains. Sats were “driving students to learn certain things that were quite advanced, such as algebra, without having a basic deep knowledge of what numbers were”.

Children 'get very stuck'

The dearth of A-level maths qualifications among primary teachers means that many of them “either think that maths is baffling or they actually go to the other extreme and they overestimate the extent to which things should be obvious and intuitive to children when they’re not”, Allen says.

“I think we move too fast and the curriculum moves too fast, particularly in the very first stage at school, and I think it leads children to get very, very stuck.”

And after six years as an academic at the IoE, Allen felt that she, too, had got stuck. Or at least that she had “got to a place where I was very much working on my own and there weren’t that many people around who were interested in analysing the big administrative databases”.

She has been a prominent contributor to Twitter debates on education and cites her social media experience as a key reason why she “felt able to leave academia and strike out and do things on my own”.

“It kind of changed my view of what was important and who I wanted to communicate with,” she says. “When you’re an academic, it’s very easy to sit in a room, study the education system and never talk to a teacher.

“And then you discover this thing called Twitter, and there are all these teachers talking about their jobs and then you kind of get sucked back into their world.”

Datalab is widely seen as a success, yet it was launched in 2015 “without any kind of mission or strategy or overarching business plan or budget or anything else”, admits Allen, raising her voice above the chimes of nearby Big Ben.

Her office is only a few minutes from the hallowed halls of Westminster, but its sparse white walls, and position – above a shop selling ecclesiastical garments – lend it a certain “start-up” feel.

Datalab, part of the non-profit company FFT Education Ltd, aims to provide research that informs education policy and improves teaching practice. Its approach to selecting themes to look at is best described as ad hoc.

“I think that we’re very driven by the personal interests of the people who work here,” Allen says. “We’re a very small team. On a day-to-day basis we just trust each other to do good work.”

It’s a strategy that seems to be working: the absence of rigid publication schedules means that findings are often released as soon as policies are mooted, planting seeds as early as possible for the ensuing debate.

Education landscape

Within a few hours of the Department for Education publishing its recent consultation on “ordinary working families”, for example, Allen and her team had tweeted countless theories, arguments and explanations, and published two detailed analyses skewering some of the paper’s underlying assumptions.

Allen is cagey when asked what Datalab might turn its attentions to next, but suggests key stage 4 could be a future focus. For now, though, her priority is to continue analysing data and dissecting policies.

However, she accepts that when it comes to one of the biggest potential changes to the education landscape – the expansion of grammar schools – the government is not exactly in listening mode. “It’s coming out of Number 10 and it’s flying in the face of any kind of informed policy about what we should do to help children who live in disadvantaged areas,” she says, visibly exasperated.

Allen chaired her university’s Labour club in 1997, but is no longer a member of the party and claims that she is “not at all” political.

But she admits her response to the expansion of grammar schools is full of personal emotion. She is also clear that the evidence that the change would hurt disadvantaged pupils is “unambiguous”.

Do not trust headteachers who claim they will never convert their schools into grammars, she warns, illustrating her fears using economic theory. She cites the “prisoner’s dilemma” – a theory that shows why “rational” individuals might not cooperate in a given situation, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.

In an imaginary town with six heads running successful schools, “one of them will blink”, “because nobody wants to be a secondary modern, and the best way to guarantee you won’t be a secondary modern is to throw in an application to become a grammar school.”

@CharlotteSantry

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