Sutton Trust Toolkit – evidence-based guidance contradicts much Government advice

Janet Downs's picture
Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is fond of the word “evidence-based”. But so often his policies have little grounding in actual evidence.

The Sutton Trust’s Education Endowment Fund toolkit is designed to help teachers decide which teaching strategies are backed by research.

So, what did the Sutton Trust find about five of the Government’s preferred strategies?

Ability grouping

As long ago as 2006, David Cameron said he wanted to see setting in every school. But while there may be “some benefits for higher attaining pupils in particular subjects”, these are “largely outweighed by the direct and indirect negative effects for mid-range and lower performing learners, with low attaining learners falling behind by on average one or two months a year compared with their progress in a class without segregation.”

Extended school time

Michael Gove said, ‘We are all in favour of longer school days, and potentially shorter summer holidays.”

But “evidence suggests that it is likely to be cheaper and more efficient to focus on using existing school time more effectively before considering extending school time” and “it may be better to invest in the quality of teaching and learning in schools in the first instance, rather than the quantity.”

Performance pay

What did the toolkit say about performance pay – something highly rated by the Government?

“Performance pay has been tried on a number of occasions, however the evidence of impact on student learning does not support the approach… Performance pay may lead to a narrower focus on test performance and restrict other aspects of learning.”


Systematic, synthetic phonics is heavily promoted by the Government. The toolkit concluded that while phonics “can be an important component in supporting the development of early reading skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds”, phonics instruction was not a “panacea” and other aspects of reading, such as vocabulary development, were equally important. This is what the toolkit said about synthetic phonics:

“There is some evidence that particular approaches such as synthetic phonics may be more beneficial than analytic approaches, however the evidence here is less secure and it is probably more important to match the teaching to children’s particular needs and systematically teach the sound patterns with which they are not yet confident.”

School uniform

The Schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, said '...schools can encourage good behaviour by... having traditional blazer and tie uniforms.'

But the Sutton Trust found “there is no robust evidence that introducing a school uniform will, by itself, improve academic performance, behaviour or attendance.”

It’s important to remember that the Sutton Trust didn’t just give its opinion – it looked at the evidence base and came to a considered conclusion.

Perhaps someone should send a copy to Michael Gove.

How does the toolkit work?

Effectiveness is measured by how many months progress is likely to be made if the strategy is implemented. This is ranked from 0 (very low or no effect) to 9-12 (very high). The evidence base is graded from one star (very limited) to five stars (very extensive). And the toolkit gives the likely cost of these strategies: low (£) to very high (£££££).



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