The ‘Improving Schools Challenge’: Nick Gibb v John Hattie – Round 1

Ladies and Gentleman – welcome to the first round of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge!’ This is no physical fight, but a battle of minds: who has the best ideas to improve schools? Lets meet our contestants:

In the Blue corner: put your hands together for former accountant, Conservative MP for Bognor and now Schools Minister, Mr Nick ‘The Disciplinator’ Gibb. He will be fighting tonight using arguments based on hunches, prejudice and a desire to precisely replicate the grammar school education he experienced way back when.

In the Impartial corner: a big welcome to the little-known Kiwi boffin, all the way from the University of Auckland, Professor John ‘The Synthesiser’ Hattie. He will be counter-punching with arguments based on sound research, an analysis of 50,000 studies involving millions of children and the objective application of reason and evidence.

Who will win?

Please settle down for Round 1.

Nick Gibb starts the battle of the brains with an interesting proposition. Drawing on a tactic from a previous fight (on the Politics Show), he dives in with:

“I visit schools every week and I’ve seen some very high quality comprehensives in very deprived parts of Britain…and what they do is they set their children by ability so that children are taught in similar ability group, whereas in a lot of comprehensives under this government, only about 40 % of lessons are set. So that’s a key priority…then you’ll see the grammar school type of education existing in the comprehensive [schools].”

Hattie looks stunned. He never thought he’d have the old “put ’em in sets” argument chucked his way. He reels, turns and reaches for…what’s this? Yes, it looks like Hattie is going to go straight for Gibb’s weak spot and use empirical evidence.

‘The Synthesiser’ goes technical. He says that you can measure something called the ‘effect size’: this tells you, in precise terms, the impact of almost anything on a child’s achievement. He fronts up to Gibb: ‘I’ve got it all in my locker: whether giving homework makes a difference, or the size of the school, or teaching phonics, or the degree of parental support. You name it!’

Now it’s Gibb that looks dazed. He digs deep, drawing on his experience of the handful of schools he has strolled round. He swipes wildly: ‘Some were really good’, he says, ‘and they had their children in sets – so let’s have children working in sets everywhere. Take that, logic-man!’

Hattie knows what to do. He goes for the kill. Calmly, he reels off the findings of over 300 studies (carried out by clever people who know what they are talking about) into whether grouping by ability works.

He unleashes a fierce flurry of blows: the overall effects of grouping by ability are ‘minimal’ and in some cases ‘profoundly negative’; across three ability groups (top, middle and bottom) ‘no-one profits’; those in low-ability groups can have their educational experience ‘deadened’ and, as a result, are ‘alienated’; this negatively affects ‘low-income’ groups more than those on higher-incomes.

What matters, says Hattie, is the quality of teaching, not how children are grouped: it’s the teachers, stupid.

Gibb stumbles back to his corner, clutching his old school tie, mumbling ‘Well, I was in top set and it worked for me.’

Looks like it’s Round 1 to ‘The Synthesiser’, Professor John Hattie!

Will ‘The Disciplinator’ recover?

Round 2 coming up soon…

(If you would like to read Professor John Hattie in the unfettered form, his extraordinarily comprehensive findings can be found in his book ‘Visible Learning’. Not as read-able as a Grisham I’ll admit, but it’s a gem all the same).



Filed under Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools

7 responses to “The ‘Improving Schools Challenge’: Nick Gibb v John Hattie – Round 1

  1. WJPutt

    Spot on! An expression used, interestingly enough, by a colleague of a good friend from university’s dad, when weighing tubs of coal as they arrived at the pit head from the pit bottom at a North East Wales colliery!

  2. Johanna TC

    Great stuff, and as ever with this blog, v entertaining

  3. teachingbattleground


    Hattie’s against setting but it isn’t based on the statistics. He fudges the stats by treating setting as an “intervention” and comparing it with the average effect for interventions rather than with mixed ability teaching.

    But we shouldn’t be distracted from the fact that the effect size for setting is 0.12. It is 0.3 for gifted students. This is apparently just for the case where the sets have the same curriculum. If you teach the same sets different things we see more of an effect. An accelerated curriculum for gifted students has an effect size of 0.88.

    The empirical evidence collected by Hattie is on Nick Gibb’s side here.

    • Jan Tishauser

      Acceleration is not ability grouping. The 0.88 effect size can be found in John Hatties stats. Acceleration of gifted students implies that they finish school in a shorter time. Ability grouping is keeping the students together in one class.

      • teachingbattleground

        But what is the point of grouping the most able together if they don’t cover more material in less time? And how do you accelerate the gifted students without grouping them together?

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