Minister claims education policies are ‘Evidence-based’ – not so.

Janet Downs's picture
The Government’s education refoms are ‘evidence-based’, repeated School Reform Minister Nick Gibb. But this isn’t true.

Three claims have been made recently by Gibb, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Prime Minister David Cameron. None is underpinned by evidence.

CLAIM (Gibb): removing levels from assessment at the end of primary school is backed up by evidence from ‘fast-improving countries’ like Singapore and Finland which don’t have levels.

But Finland’s education system didn’t improve quickly – it was the result of slow, steady reform over decades. And Gibb seems unaware that most countries not only don’t have levels but they don’t have national exams at the end of primary school either. The OECD* found only four of the thirty-four OECD countries used such tests.

CLAIM (Morgan): Short breaks damage young people’s futures.

Morgan cited research which she said upheld her view that taking children away on short holidays during term had a significant negative effect on attainment. FullFact looked at the research. It found pupils with high rates of absenteeism performed less well but illness caused 58% of school absence, not term-time holidays which accounted for just 11% (2012/13 figures). The research also found persistent absentees were more likely to have negative feelings about school or have been bullied.

CLAIM (Cameron): ‘All schools, in my view, should set by ability, particularly in English and maths.’

The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, recommended by the Department for Education because it’s evidence-based, found that while ability setting could benefit high-attaining pupils it could have a negative effect on low-achievers or disadvantaged children. The OECD found high-performing school systems tended not to segregate children according to ability. In 2012, when the focus of the OECD’s PISA tests was maths, it found:

‘On average across OECD countries, the advantage in mathematics performance increased for students in schools that do not use ability grouping compared with students in schools where ability grouping is practiced in some or all classes.’ (p40)

The OECD also found in the UK, only 6% of pupils are NOT ‘grouped by ability’ in maths classes. The OECD average for that measure is 49%. In South Korea it’s 28% and in Japan it’s 54%. Both countries significantly outperform the UK in maths.

These three discredited claims increase the number of claims already debunked on this site and elsewhere. These include the lie that children leaving primary school with Level 3 are illiterate and innumerate, the persistent myth that academies perform better than non-academies (see here, here and here) and the zombie statistic that the UK has plummeted down international league tables in a decade.

Further myths are debunked in our book School Myths: And the Evidence that Blows Them Apart.

The NUT response to Cameron’s suggestion is here.

*See faq above What are the examination and assessment systems in OECD countries?
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Leah K Stewart's picture
Fri, 27/02/2015 - 17:45

Yes, Janet. My goodness! Over my 20 years of schooling (inc. University) I came to my own conclusions that I actually doubted for a long time... because they are completely at-odds with what we hear from our learned and wise government! It exciting for me now as I'm free to do my own research in this area (in my evening-time as I'm not interested in becoming a full-time student again), because my 'obvious' conclusions are being confirmed. Communities like this are helpful too.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Fri, 27/02/2015 - 17:52

This reminds us that there is an inherent danger in domains such as Education where everyone has personal experience (even if from decades ago, and only ever as a student) and believes that they can couple that experience with common sense to make bold statements with a sense of authority.

The OECD finding on segregation cannot be derived via that route. It has to be determined either by teacher experience or research findings. It is largely counter-intuitive that streaming would negatively affect over all school performance. Finland avoid streaming on the first 9 years of schooling to very good effect.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 27/02/2015 - 21:10

"Common sense is something which you think you know to be true but that may not actually be true. It is a way of reasoning based on heuristics, and basic rationality applied to that knowledge. However, the danger with common sense is that the scope of knowledge can be quite wrong, and the basic rationality can simply not be deep enough for an attempt at finding truth."

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sat, 28/02/2015 - 15:17

You're free to call me naive but I find the fact that everyone has personal experience of schooling as a student at least, is a great thing. I trust that, given freedom to think and engage in discussions, people can bring important insights based on their experiences and I don't want people to be shut down just because they're only a student/parent/professional and haven't spent years as a Teacher or conducting research with the PhD stamp. There are already lots of great teachers and researchers sharing their insights for the rest of us to draw on and build on.

As for politicians, I actually feel pretty sorry for them. When they choose politics as a career they are choosing to spend periods of their life within or leading various departments where each new post calls them to firstly, care deeply about that field (or fake caring deeply) and secondly, to be an expert (or pretend to be an expert). We expect them to care deeply and be an expert in every one of their career steps through a wide range of departments without thinking how possible this is. Politicians are just people and we have them in a position where they'd be fools to be honest and say, "I don't know, but I think... what do you think?" or "Do you have any idea how little I can do, on my own?"

P.S. I don't know any politician at all so I'm not saying this to stand up for anyone in particular. This is just what I'm currently thinking and I'd be delighted with any further guidance from this network to help me build understanding of politics and schooling.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 28/02/2015 - 15:55

I tend to agree with you. The reason is that history of modern government reflects that few secretaries of state or ministerial subordinates in their departments have either held an appropriate first degree (or higher) in or had actual experience in the cabinet post they hold For example how many:

1. Home Secretaries have been qualified in legal matters or worked in the police?
2. Secretaries of Health have been qualified doctors or worked in medicine/health?
3. Secretaries of Defence have been qualified in an appropriate military or weapons based subject or served in any of the 3 Services?

The list could go one but I'll stop there.

I therefore pay no heed to those who deride secretaries of state for not being expert in their subject (e.g. SoS Educ not being qualified as a teacher or ever holding a teaching post). Like it or loathe it our system is based on politicians that hold high office doing so on the basis of implementing and driving their governments agenda and by no means least being able to make decisions.

My position is that Education is far too important to and for the nation to be left to the self-interest and vested-interest of party politics and political ideologues.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 01/03/2015 - 11:04

Thanks to Schools Week ('A Week in Westminster' in the print version) for debunking another myth - politicians' frequent claim that the Wolf Report was 'implemented in full'. Schools Week said this was 'a bit of a porky'. Schools' Week editor, Laura McInerney, took to Twitter:

'Review of Wolf Report is out. Can the government now please stop saying it has been implemented in full.'

The Review admitted that 6 of the 27 recommendations had been 'part-implemented' and one hadn't been implemented at all. For more details see Schools Week's sister paper, FE Week.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 01/03/2015 - 19:13

Janet, thanks for the link to Schools' Week. I was interested in other stories and in particular, came across this comment about 'purdah', written by Jade Kent (solicitor in the education team at Michelmores LLP).

Purda "refers to the pre-election period – specifically the time between the election announcement and results." Ms Kent makes some very interesting observations about the use of school buildings by politicians.

I was interested in the particular rules to be observed when politicians use public premises for electioneering. "Once an election is called, candidates are legally entitled to use publicly funded schools and other public meeting rooms free, subject to caretaking costs. However, a fair and consistent approach must be taken, that is, a debate organised through a school should only be held if all political parties fielding candidates in the relevant area are given the opportunity to take part. So be careful when allowing political discussions in your school hall."

As to who is responsible for enforcing the rules, "The local authority has a responsibility to ensure that its resources, including school resources that are paid for by the authority’s money, are not used for political purposes during an election period."

I may be clutching at straws but, I submitted the following comment and would hope to have a reply at some point.

"In view of what you have written here, Jade, it would be interesting to know what you think of David Cameron’s recent visit to Kingsmead School.

It seems to me that it is a clear breach of the rules on political meeting held on school premises. If this could be challenged, it would help draw attention to the problems of allowing political consideration to affect education, as so clearly identified in your excellent piece.
March 1, 2015 at 6:08 pm "

If there is any way of forcing the hand of all political parties over education in the run-up to the election, I believe we should go for it. So many of Jade's comments offer further compelling reasons why we have to overturn the present system of national governance of education.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/03/2015 - 10:34

John - presumably the local authority's responsibility to ensure school premises aren't used for political purposes during an election period can't extend to academies which are autonomous.

It could be argued that Cameron's speech wasn't electioneering because it took place before 'purdah'. However, a counter argument is that the speech didn't appear on the DfE or GovUK website but on the Conservative Party website. This implies it was not Cameron the PM speaking, but Cameron the Tory leader. If that's the case, then Kingsmead was in breach of the requirement for schools to be politically neutral.

CORRECTION This comment was corrected at 14.28. I had said Cameron's speech was on Conservative Home website. It was actually from the press office of the Conservative Party.

agov's picture
Mon, 02/03/2015 - 13:13

No, sorry, but I think you'll find that's all wrong [apart from the bit about 'purdah' (- new one on me, in this context) not having commenced.]

The election period has not started as it has not yet been called. See -

(for 'Privy Council' read 'Prime Minister').

On this occasion it so happens that we already know election day as the Condems took it upon themselves to (temporarily?) amend the British Constitution to suit their political/electoral needs. Nevertheless, election rules regarding balance are not currently operative and are irrelevant. Nor, so far as I'm aware (does anyone know better?), are academy schools in a different situation to normal schools.

The situation is therefore no different from Ed Miliband using Haverstock to talk about financial donors to the Conservative Party. It's merely a matter of a school choosing to invite a politician to speak as a contribution to exposing students to current affairs and the wider political context. Quite right too, I would have thought.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/03/2015 - 13:36

agov - you're right we're not yet in purdah. And you're also right that schools can ask politicians to talk to pupils about current affairs.

But schools, including academies, also have a legal duty to be non-partisan. So if a Tory were invited then other parties should also be invited.

A disturbing development over the last decade is for politicians to use schools as a backdrop for political announcements. Pupils are reduced to being extras in someone else's film. These events can't be claimed to have educational benefit. The speech isn't for the benefit of pupils- the video of Gove's oration at Haberdashers' Aske's shows that.

Cameron's speech at Kingsmead was high-profile, took place in front of a poster extolling Tory pledges and was associated with Conservative party website rather than Parliament This raises the question surrounding whether it was political canvassing. It it was, then was Kingsmead in breach of its duty to be impartial? I'd ask the same question if Miliband turned up at Somewhere School, gave a speech about Labour policy in front of press-ganged pupils and which then appeared on Labour's website.

CORRECTION This comment was amended at 14.26. I had said the speech was associated with ConHome when it actually appeared on the Tory party website.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/03/2015 - 13:40

agov - this picture of Miliband's visit to Haverstock shows the audience comprised mainly adults. It doesn't appear to be the equivalent of Cameron's Kingsmead speech which was to pupils and the media.

agov's picture
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 15:19

Good point Janet. I should have checked more carefully. It seems that the visit occurred on what may (- not quite clear) have been the first day of the school break. The Haverstock newsletter for 23 February has photos and says

"Students from the Career Academies in discussion with Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt after the launch of Labour’s education policy at Haverstock on 12th February. 23 February 2015"

Seems reasonable to assume Career Academy students were at the speech.

A legal duty to be non-partisan is not the same as a duty to invite representatives from more than one political party to every single event attended by any politician. There is no duty on politicians not to make their case. It is for the school to choose how balance should be obtained. It is arguable whether political visits can be educational - from facial expressions I seen on news items they seem to have a certain educational effect if only in motivating students to be deeply sceptical of what they are being told. In any case there is no one party that has utilised such means even if Haverstock may not have been an optimum example.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 16:30

Here's another unverifiable soundbite from the School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb, in the Commons yesterday:

'As a result of our policy on reading and the introduction of the phonics check in 2012, 102,000 six-year-olds are today reading more effectively than they would otherwise have done had Labour stayed in office.'

That statement can't be verified. It's opinion. We don't know what would have happened if Labour had remained in power. We don't know what improvements schools would have made if Labour had been in office.

Gibb should know, of course, the phonics diagnostic test tests decoding not comprehension. Reading 'effectively' is more than decoding.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 16:36

Is Education Questions a waste of time? For example, Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con) asked the SoS to 'commend Windsor Girls’ school for forming a joint academy status with Windsor Boys’ school?'

This gave Morgan the chance to say: 'I add my congratulations to the two schools on becoming academies. On this side, we firmly believe that academy status puts power in the hands of heads and teachers who know how best to serve their pupils and give them the best possible start in life.'

But we know academy status isn't a magic bullet. Morgan's ignoring advice from Ed Select Committee not to keep exaggerating academy success.

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