Here's our chance to find out what works in addressing the shameful attainment gap between rich and poor
Imagine the uproar if doctors prescribed a remedy based purely on a hunch or hearsay; or if a new drug was introduced to the NHS without robust evidence of efficacy or safety. It is unimaginable that such action would be allowed in a system which, day in, day out, deals with such high stakes as patients' lives.
But in our school system this happens all too often - and the results directly impact on the futures of millions of pupils. Initiatives come and go, with very little attention paid to impact or cost effectiveness. Of course, there is no magic pill for curing the education system's ills: a multitude of factors contribute to the stubborn gap in attainment between poor pupils and their better-off classmates.
But the fact remains we know far too little about what works in raising the achievements of the poorest student - and we are particularly lacklustre at getting those messages to hard-pressed teachers and school leaders where the information will make a difference. Take class size: time and again, this is where teachers say they would deploy extra resources, but the research is far from conclusive on whether this is the best use of the marginal pound.
This is why I believe the new Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is such an exciting and hugely significant development. Launched last week, the EEF has been set up by the Sutton Trust as the lead charity in partnership with Impetus, a venture philanthropy charity. It is initially funded by an endowment of #163;125 million from the Department for Education and, together with income from the endowment and fundraising, is projected to spend over #163;200 million over the next 15 years. This will be used to develop initiatives to raise the attainment of the poorest pupils in the most challenging schools. Crucially, it has a 15-year time horizon to evaluate what works, both in the immediate and long term, free from political pressures or the vagaries of the parliamentary cycle.
That's not to say we can afford to be complacent in our approach. As the research the EEF released last week shows, the 165,000 pupils we will initially target are half as likely as their better-off peers to reach national standards at primary level and one third as likely to reach national standards at secondary level. That is not a firm foundation on which to build their futures and is something which urgently needs addressing.
So the target group for EEF-funded projects in its first couple of years are pupils eligible for free school meals in primary and secondary schools underneath the Government's floor standards at key stages 2 and 4. That's roughly 1,500 schools up and down the country. Projects can benefit other schools and pupils, as long as there is a significant focus on this core target group of the most needy young people in the most challenging schools.
We are particularly interested in projects where schools join in partnership and want to encourage applications which harness the expertise of those beyond the school gates - whether charities, universities, colleges, local authorities or other not-for-profit groups. We are interested in innovative takes on a perennial problem but also want to support proven initiatives to scale up and extend their reach. This is not about showering schools with small amounts of money and hoping for the best - we want to fund sizeable projects that can be properly tested for impact.
Our most important challenge will be to communicate the findings of our work to school leaders, teachers and others in an accessible way - influencing practice in schools and how the sector and the Government allocates its billions. This is more important than ever in a time of constrained spending and increased devolution of budgets to individual schools.
As part of the lead-up to the launch of the EEF I have visited a number of the schools we would like to help. The social, economic and cultural disadvantages the pupils face have shocked me, despite 15 years of experience in addressing education inequality. But I have also been heartened by meeting some inspirational teachers and headteachers; and hugely encouraged by pupils who, in the midst of poverty, have such high aspirations for their education and careers.
I went to one secondary school of 1,300 students in Smethwick in the West Midlands and as part of the visit talked to a group of pupils, many of whom struck me as being very bright. I asked them what they wanted to do when they were adults. One wanted to be a surgeon, another an architect, a third a lawyer. But what is so heart-breaking is that we know, for most children from poorer homes, the chances of realising such aspirations are slim to none.
The experience reminded me of an educational trip I took to Sweden a few years ago. I was given a presentation at the Ministry of Education and the very first slide they put up was the number one clause from the Swedish Education Act.
It read: "All children and young must have access to equivalent education, regardless of gender, place of residence and social and financial background."
We are so far away from that in Britain that it is shameful. Despite record investment and countless initiatives, to whom and where you are born continue to be the biggest determinant of educational achievement.
My hope is that the legacy of the EEF will be to enable the young people I met in Smethwick - as well as the thousands of similar pupils in schools up and down the country - to realise their aspirations. Only then will we get close to the ideals set out in Sweden.
Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the new Education Endowment Foundation and of the Sutton Trust. www.educationendowmentfoundation.com.