Bronze Rusty Bullets in the Battlegrounds of our North East Schools

Rusty bullets

Jon Tait, Director of Acklam Grange Teaching School

Twitter: @TeamTait

You’d be forgiven for thinking this article was about gun crime in school. Thankfully, even with a recent Donald Trump visit to the UK and his efforts to try and persuade everyone to believe the American dream, it’s not. What it is though, is a story of perceived crimes against education. Crimes of perceived educational ignorance in the North, that the educational courtrooms of the south are trying to hang us for. A desire for the exporting of southern silver bullets to be used to win over the battlegrounds of the North.

Evidence based research and evidence informed practice are certainly the new buzzwords in town when it comes to education. There has certainly been a concerted effort in the last 2-3 years to get the education profession to adopt a more research based approach to its practices, similar to how our colleagues in the medical profession go about their business. On the face of it, it sounds entirely plausible….you wouldn’t expect to go and see a doctor when you were ill and let them experiment with different medicines on you, would you? You’d probably be quite annoyed and concerned if you found out that they weren’t using any form of research behind their methods and were just using a certain drug or procedure because they had a ‘feeling’ that it might make you better?

One of the crimes adjudged to have taken place over the last few years is an experimentation on students’ education without any clear, robust and detailed evidence to back up most of the strategies that teachers are using on a day to day basis in their classrooms. However, in the defence of teachers up and down the country, education is quite different to medicine. In education, context is key. Unlike an injury or illness that can generally be treated with the same drug (with relative success) whether you are 18 or 80 and live in Middlesbrough or Middlesex, children’s learning is affected by so many more things. The context in which we are working is absolutely crucial. What works for one child in one class, may not work for another child across the corridor in the same building. However, the prosecution will claim that there is also a danger that teachers and leaders dismiss some of these academic research studies and use their differing context as an excuse to not look at it in any depth. The key is therefore to have professional conversations about the research and make informed decisions about if it will have an impact on student learning in your context. As Tom Martell from the Education Endowment Fund points out ‘most research travels quite well within education, we just need to be open minded about its context and how we implement it’.

In terms of parity, Chris Zarraga, Director of Operations at SCHOOLS North East quite rightly points out, that the other big difference between the medical profession and education is that you’ll never expect to see a politician come out and publicly tell medical professionals how to perform open heart surgery or how to cure the common cold. Their crucial lack of understanding of context is a crime in itself. Take for instance the London Challenge and the stance by many, including esteemed dignitaries within education such as Sir Michael Wilshaw, that the North East just need to simply follow in London’s footsteps to ensure educational parity. However, this is where context really does come into play and where ignorance to it, or a refusal to accept it, is just as criminal. Closing the disadvantaged gap on paper can be very different when you’re working with families who show up as ‘Ever 6’ where a London city investment banker has been made redundant for six months, compared to a family in a North East coastal town where they have been part of a culture of generations of unemployment. Simply transferring the principles of a London Challenge, without the same funding and without the same context is clearly not going to be the silver bullet that some people think it is. This approach to medically treating educational ill health is more fitting with firing a gun loaded with bronze blanks.

Subscribing to the theory that you can pick an intervention off the shelf and just jump on that silver bullet because it says it’s going to improve student outcomes by a certain amount of months is just as criminal as being ignorant to the research in the first place. If school improvement was that easy, then we’d all do it overnight. The DfE would write the manual, we’d all read it and employ the strategies in our classroom and hey presto.…silver bullets all round. But we know (or we should do) that it’s not that straight forward. Taking context to the extreme view, Tom Martell from the Education Endowment Fund tells of a research trial in the 1980’s that found that caning students increased student outcomes by two months! Are we all going to jump on that silver bullet any time soon? Clearly the context here is different and this is where professional conversations need to be had to decipher whether or not an intervention can travel well through time or geography.

Evidence based research and evidence informed practice looks here to stay, but it’s all about your choice of weapon and ammunition. A highly skilled marksman will pick his gun and his bullets for the type of shot that he is aiming to execute. A comic book image of a man with a bag full of silver bullets and a shiny gun does not exist, not even in education.

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