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Standards guru rounds on critic over teacher morale

The Government's school improvement guru has accused a leading critic of undermining teachers' morale by denying that they can make a difference.

Michael Barber, head of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment, says Peter Robinson's reaction to the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, in which he questions the impact of any educational intervention on pupil attainment, harks back to the social determinism of the 1960s.

"Nothing surely can do more damage to morale than being told that however hard or smart you work, it makes no difference," writes Professor Barber in the summer issue of a new journal, Improving Schools.

The work of Dr Robinson, chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, is based on two longitudinal surveys (using information on primary schools in the 1960s and 1970s) that demonstrate the importance of social class as a predictor of pupil performance.

"No one seriously doubts this anyway," says Professor Barber. "Their weakness is that they do nothing to explain why children with identical socio-economic backgrounds do well in some schools and badly in others. Are we to understand that this occurs merely at random and that nothing the school can do can make a difference?

"Surely this is absurd. The fact that Robinson is unable to find a causal link between any school improvement intervention and a change in standards does not mean there isn't one."

Professor Barber refers to research, much of it carried out at London's Institute of Education (where he himself was a professor) showing that there is "an all-important school effect".

He also accuses Dr Robinson of ignoring three decades of research showing how schools can improve pupils' performance in literacy and numeracy by such methods as more interactive, whole-class teaching.

"To those who ask about raising standards: 'Should we address disadvantage or improve schools?' we would answer: 'Why not do both?', says Barber. 'To those who ask, as Robinson does: 'Should our focus be on average performance or the performance of the 'long tail of underachievers'?' we would answer: 'Both'. "

Professor Barber also describes as "puzzling" the comment in the London Institute of Education's response to last summer's White Paper that "it is impossible to distinguish real changes in the performance of pupils from changes in the tests and examinations that are used."

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