Follow the Bananarama principle

24th August 2012 at 01:00
With the pupil premium, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, says Lee Elliot Major

As a teenager I would have been appalled to know that by far the most influential song in my life would be by Bananarama. Not only this: one day I would be talking to blank-faced heads too young to even remember this once-famous girl group.

The Bananarama principle (a term coined by Durham University's Steve Higgins) is the one thing I hope teachers will take from our Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which attempts, using wide-ranging research, to outline how best to spend the pupil premium cash to improve the results of poorer pupils.

"It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it," goes Bananarama's hit. The mantra for schools is a variation on this theme: "It's not what you spend, it's the way that you spend it." And of course, that's what gets results.

This may seem obvious. But the point is too often lost on teachers. The mistake is to measure success solely in terms of pounds invested and budgets gained. The key question, however, is this: what education bang are you getting for your buck?

When the Sutton Trust asked teachers what their top priority for the pupil premium would be this academic year, less than 3 per cent identified the most cost-effective classroom approaches cited in the toolkit. These include improving the way they provide feedback on pupil performance, enabling pupils to teach their peers and making learning strategies more explicit. Implemented well, these approaches can increase pupils' performance by an extra eight or nine months in a school year.

Early intervention schemes, reducing class sizes, one-to-one tuition and additional teaching assistants (TAs) were the most frequently cited priorities. The toolkit concludes that the benefits of reducing class sizes are not particularly large or clear and that TAs have zero impact on attainment. For every brilliant TA out there, there is another having a negative impact.

Underlying the toolkit's research findings is a broader message. The actual practice of good teaching - how teachers do their job in the classroom - is the most important factor in children's learning. This is obviously not a novel insight. But it sometimes feels as if the entire education system is in self-denial about this age-old truth. We obsess over an enduring list of education myths such as smaller class sizes or new types of schools, and then we wonder why standards have failed to improve - despite the extra billions poured into schools.

What is the one thing schools could do above all else? Identify their most effective teachers and get them to share with colleagues what they do. It's called professional development.

Our aim is not to provide teachers with some off-the-shelf prescription that will magically raise results but to empower them to make informed decisions for themselves. Most of all, this means adopting a three-step approach.

The first step is to use data to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your school, and particular classes or groups of pupils. Schools today are awash with data. The challenge is to interrogate this evidence wisely.

Once an area of focus has been identified, a school must then decide how to use its resources to improve attainment. This is where it is important for schools to look beyond their own experiences, to external research. The toolkit can help identify ways of spending resources to the best effect.

The third step is to evaluate the impact of new approaches in your own school context. This is important: some approaches may be more effective in a new setting or if developed in a new way. Make no mistake, the coming years will see an escalating battle over the future of the teaching profession.

Now the government mantra is school freedom and autonomy. Do teachers seize the moment to become informed professionals - taking heed of the Bananarama principle? Or do they fall back to the bad old trends of the 1980s? It really is up to you.

Lee Elliot Major is director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust.

Commissioned by the Sutton Trust and now being developed by the Education Endowment Foundation, the Teaching and Learning Toolkit can be found at

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