In a time where schools policy seems to swing wildly from one extreme (think wholesale structural reforms like free schools and Academies) to political interference in the minutiae of how children should be taught to read (think synthetic phonics) praise the Lord for some calm, reasonable, sanity-restoring words from the good people at the Sutton Trust.
Their latest dollop of common sense comes in the form of a guide for schools on how to spend the Pupil Premium. They keep clear of the politics, not seeking to make a judgement on whether the Premium is ever going to meet its grandiose aims: to increase social mobility, to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils and to smooth the barely-worn path from a place called ‘deprivation’ to somewhere called ‘Oxbridge’. Instead they present, in simple terms, options for schools about how to spend their cash.
It’s clear, quite early on in the report, that the authors not only engaged their brains, but – in deciding what to include in their list – also managed to plant tongues firmly in cheeks. They surely had the bone-headed traditionalists in mind – those who believe that the absence of a well-knotted, throat-gripping school tie explains just about everything that is wrong with our schools – when they explained that there is no evidence that school uniform improves ‘academic performance, behaviour or attendance’. So there!
They also slay, in a gentle academic way, some other sacred cows. Grouping by ability, for example, is described as ‘what not to do if you want low income pupils to benefit’. And the benefits of homework are summarised as ‘modest’ at secondary school, and even less so at primary school.
But in true boffin-style, they are concerned not with the grinding of axes but with the evidence. This leads them to similarly dismiss the more cuddly teaching approaches, such as developing activities for children based on their ‘learning styles’, which in some cases has been shown to have a detrimental effect. They also have little time, purely in the context of the aims of the Pupil Premium, for reducing class sizes, after school programmes or summer schools.
More controversially, however, the Sutton Trust questions the role of Teaching Assistants who, according to studies, have ‘very small or no effects on attainment’ particularly when their main role is either to tidy up after the teacher or to provide ill-defined support to a particular child or group of children.
This finding should make schools – if they are anything like mine – think long and hard about Teaching Assistants on their pay roll and how they are matched with children who may be the beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium. What a waste if the Premium ends up aimlessly dumped in the generic pot for ‘special needs support’ – perhaps to top up the hours of a Teaching Assistant, who ends up spending her time at the photocopier or sharpening pencils.
So, to the key question: what does work?
The Sutton Trust points to three things:
First, the teacher providing effective feedback to the learner about their progress.
Second, ‘meta-cognition strategies’ – teaching approaches which ‘make learners’ thinking about learning more explicit in the classroom’.
Third, ‘peer tutoring’ where ‘learners work in pairs or small groups to provide each other with explicit teaching support’.
It’s as simple as that, apparently.
What is striking about the Sutton Trust’s top three is that, put simply, they cost peanuts. Money does not need to be thrown at the problem. To make this work, there’s no need for top-of-the-range technology. Nor do you need to convert to an Academy. Or teach Latin while playing rugby (competitively of course).
The only real expenditure is on a bit of CPD which, presumably, the school would be spending anyway.
What is more interesting, though, is that these interventions bring us back to a simple truth: it is good, innovative teaching that makes the difference, done by teachers who are constantly on the look out for what will make them better at their work.
One thing nags at me, however; if we take the Sutton Trust’s advice and warmly embrace the benefits of feedback, draw close to us the joys of meta-cognition and cherish the benefits of peer tutoring – wouldn’t we then do this routinely in our classrooms? Wouldn’t all our charges benefit – rich and poor, Premium and – erm – Standard? Who could argue against such an improvement, but how will this narrow the attainment gap? Perhaps it’s not so simple, after all.