The Education White Paper & The Trouble With ‘Evidence’

Now that the dust is starting to settle on the ‘education shake-up’, it’s perhaps timely to look at the underlying beliefs informing the legislation.There’s much to applaud about the Government’s White Paper on Education (published yesterday) – and there has been a good deal of muted applause since Michael Gove’s speech. But commentators, bloggers and tweeters have variously branded it radical, pragmatic and Victorian. I know this  is inevitable on social media (like those hotel reviews on Trip Advisor) but in this case there is perhaps a simple reason: it’s shot full of contradictions. Education commentators have questioned where the big Gove vision was in the months since the election, but we were told that all would be clear once the White Paper was published. Now that it has been, are we any the wiser?

For example, Mr Gove was adamant that we should learn from what has been proven to work (evidence-based policy). Yet the centres of evidence-gathering (universities) have now effectively been taken out of teacher training. To reinforce this conviction, the department today also published its evidence base ‘The Case for Change‘ – yet this is a highly selective slice of data.And it highlights the problem of evidence-based decision-making – you can choose your evidence to suit your ideological standpoint.


There isn’t space to look at all of the white paper headlines in detail, but let’s take just one, for the purposes of trying to understand the Gove position: recruitment of teachers.


The Case for Change, rightly, argues that there is overwhelming global evidence to show that the biggest impact upon student performance lies in the quality of teaching – specifically, the recruitment, training and support, for teachers. And three cheers for a much needed focus on the importance of teaching. The report, however, says that a whopping 6% of  trainee teachers get teaching jobs with a 2:2 degree or below, so the white paper says these people will no longer be able to become teachers. But where’s the direct evidence that those 6% have an adverse impact on student performance? And is it really worth bringing in legislation to keep them out?


A Case for Change also borrows the evaluation of Teach First’s impact, citing a ‘statistically significant improvement in results’ in schools which employ Teach First students. Now, I’ve worked with Teach First teachers, and their US equivalents from Teach For America and they are undoubtedly bright, energetic professionals – just the sort we need in turning around schools. But is the additional investment in supporting Teach First   warranted when we consider that 50% of TF graduates have left the teaching profession (and over 80% in TFA) within a few years?

That’s the problem with evidence-based policy making. Someone still has to filter the evidence, and it’s all too easy to choose the evidence that suits your preference.


The most striking contradiction perhaps lies in the confusing evidence of university trained teachers versus those trained through employment-based routes. Once again, the ‘evidence’ presented argues convincingly that 80% of trainees coached in training schools felt confident in maintaining classroom discipline, compared with only 66% of those trained in universities. And yet OFSTED recently produced evidence which suggested more teachers, deemed ‘outstanding’, came from the university sector, than from training schools.


So, the department seems to be on shaky ground in claiming that the white paper isn’t based on ideology but on ‘what works’, since what works is still far from clear, from the evidence available.


And if we really were focussed purely on what works, where’s the evidence that ex-servicemen (and women) necessarily make good teachers?



One Response to The Education White Paper & The Trouble With ‘Evidence’

  1. Paul K. says:

    Governments have never, ever, not for one moment believed in genuine evidence-based policy…..unless, of course, the ‘evidence’ they’ve got supports entirely whatever policy they’ve dreamt up in the process of moving from bed to bathroom in the morning.And that’s straight – well slightly curved – from a keynote Estelle Morris gave at the British Educational Research Association annual conference a few years ago.The examples are far too numerous to mention…but here’s your starter for ten: Drugs policy re: classification of cannabis and the Professor Nutt affair.

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