Monday, 13 June 2016

Research on London Challenge

Tony McAleavy and Alex Elwick, School Improvement in London: A Global Perspective, CfBT Education Trust, 2015

The fact that as this study says “London schools have improved dramatically since 2000” and that I ended my teaching career in London in July 2001 are surely not causally linked. Correlation and causation again. Although it is hard to resist feeling like I left just before the party really got going.

This study builds upon an earlier work from CfBT looking in detail at the causal factors underpinning the improvement in London schools between 2000 and 2012.

The study assumes that “what has changed is the internal effectiveness of the schools”. There is a quite cursory dismissal of the possibility of the changes in schools resulting from factors external to the school system. 19 lines without a single reference or footnote are devoted to an examination of this possibility. It seems a weakness in the research to begin by discounting one set of possible causes without examining any evidence. The authors may be right, they may be wrong to make this assertion, but this study does not help the disinterested reader examine the question.

Nicky Morgan (and probably Michael Gove) should they read this research will be delighted at how it confirms the direction of government educational policy after 2010. Look at the key factors identified as “enabling” the success:

  • “The power of data”, where “the growth in the use of education performance data and improved data literacy among education professionals” has been highly significant.
  • “The importance of professional development”, particularly because “training became increasingly the responsibility of practitioners rather than expert advisers who had left the classroom”.
  • “The contribution of educational leaders” they argue was significant not just because good leaders were recruited but “the most significant aspect of the London story was the emergence of the best headteachers as system leaders. … These outstanding headteachers were able to provide highly effective coaching support to other schools.” Just in case you were too dim to spot the reference they add that “the idea of Consultant Leaders has been adopted at national level” by the present government.
  • “The significance of sustained political support”, so that the strategies were given time and support. In fact they helpfully observe “Teach First and the academies programme continue to this day”.

The Statistical Improvements

I am not impressed by the authors citing both improved GCSE results and better Ofsted inspection outcomes as two separate and independent variables indicating progress. The former dictates the latter as any analysis of the data shows. The improvements in attainment of “high-poverty background students” is impressive (although it’s a shame this category isn’t defined). I would like to know if there have been changes in the proportion of these students within individual school populations or across inner or outer London as a whole. There is evidence that where students from deprived populations make up a small minority of a school they experience a smaller deficit in attainment. The authors are more impressed than I am by the changes to the gaps between disadvantaged attainment and other students, when London is compared to the rest of the UK. There have been improvements nationally and while the difference is smaller in London it is hard to know whether this is due to some extreme outliers in the UK wide data or not. As in some other parts of this report, the unwillingness of the authors to look seriously at possible criticisms or alternate views ultimately weakens rather than strengthens their argument.

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