After Nick Gibb’s pounding at the hands of Professor John Hattie in Round 1 of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge’, its time for a more sober analysis of the other strands of the School Minister’s ‘vision’ for schools.
In an interview with Mike Baker, Gibb identifies certain ‘imperatives’ which he expects schools to follow (it’s not too difficult to spot the tension here between a stated aim of freeing up schools to teach how they want and, at the same time, prescribing what teachers must do).
Alongside ‘setting by ability’ (which has been addressed in ‘Round 1’), Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ are: first, for schools to adhere to a policy of ‘strict school uniform’ and, second, for teachers to teach reading using the ‘synthetic phonics’ method.
One wonders at the process by which these seemingly unconnected ideas have become central to Gibb’s world-view. Even taken together they fail to constitute anything approaching a vision for primary education. But, let’s put that to one side, and deal with them on face value and scrutinise their worth using the ‘Hattie test’.
(For those who can’t face reading my last blog, you have my sympathies. Put simply, this is a ‘Hattie test’ : the Professor from Auckland analysed – meta-analysed to be precise – over 50,000 different studies into almost every imaginable area of school life. This analysis was then computed to give something called ‘effect size’ which tells you whether a given variable – e.g. teachers adopting a particular questioning style – is worth doing or not. It’s very clever, meticulous work, giving some clarity to the confusion and complexity of classroom life and the still-intriguing process of learning).
Let’s start with school uniform: does a crisp shirt and a throat-throttling school tie help children to learn?
The evidence here mainly comes from the United States which has traditionally had a more relaxed approach to school attire. President Clinton introduced a rule allowing public schools to require students to wear uniform. Interestingly, not many did (about one in four), but enough to carry out a large-scale analysis of achievement and attitudinal data. And the conclusion?
Bad news for Gibb: school uniform had no effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a ‘significant negative effect’ in high school; no effect on attendance, or self-esteem or behaviour incidents. Overall, the impact was ‘close to zero’ (keep in mind that, the way ‘effect size’ is calculated, almost anything has an effect – even, say, a teacher standing still, smiling. So, a score ‘close to zero’ is really, really bad). Hattie describes highly-visible ideas, which are shown to achieve nothing, as ‘coats of paint’; look pretty, but pointless (assuming your measure is improving academic achievement).
So: round 2 to Hattie.
Round 3? Synthetic phonics (a process of teaching reading by breaking down words into the smallest sounds and ‘blending’ them to assist reading; children are then taught these sounds as part of a planned programme, building their knowledge of phonics day-by-day and/or week-by-week. Typically, synthetic phonics is used in this country very early in a child’s school life – infant school – and as an intervention for struggling readers later in school).
This has been an area of some contention, after it was introduced with much enthusiasm by the last Government. It was presented as a panacea; critics suggested the research base was weak, arguing the most effective method for teaching reading involved the development of different strategies (e.g. reading a whole book, using visual clues to predict words, learning words by sight – as well as a phonetics etc), rather than the adoption of a single strategy as the way to read.
But does synthetic phonics work?
Gibb is in unusual territory here: he’s backed up by the science! Hattie is enthusiastic about phonics instruction and concludes it is ‘powerful in the process of learning to read’.
The only reason this is not a clear win for Gibb is that nowhere does Hattie argue that ‘synthetic phonics’ should be used in isolation. So, teachers still must use different strategies to encourage reading (not least enthusing about books and encouraging children to love reading). But, let’s give the man some credit: Gibb ties Round 3 with Hattie.
It looks like the message from Hattie to Gibb is this: put less emphasis on ‘setting’ children, it doesn’t make a difference; loosen the old school tie, it’s purely cosmetic; and keep going with the synthetic phonics, but it’s not a panacea.
To finish, one other of Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ is worth a menion. Gibb, believe it or not, thinks children should stand when a teacher enters the room. In his meticulous study of the effectiveness of interventions which have an impact on educational achievement, Professor John Hattie makes no mention of ‘standing up’ or, indeed, ‘sitting down’.
This could be because he thinks it is of no educational significance. Or he could be saving his really big, knock-out ideas for a later volume. You decide.