Sutton Trust Report: it'll Take More Than a Research Paper to Improve Teaching in British Schools

Sutton Trust Report: it'll Take More Than a Research Paper to Improve Teaching in British Schools

The Sutton Trust, an influential education charity, yesterday released a report written by academics at Durham University that praises traditional teaching methods, entitled What makes great teaching? The report’s author, Professor Robert Coe, has led calls for teachers to reject the pop-psychology of so-called “learning styles”.

This may sound like great news for those of us who think progressive teaching methods have been a disaster for education. But it isn’t. When you read the report (all 57 dutifully-footnoted pages of it) you realise that it is a dull, academic literature review; less a Sgt. Pepper album-that-changes-everything and more Now That’s What I Call Educational Research. 

Yesterday’s winner was the Sutton Trust’s PR department, who, to paraphrase Warhol, got their fifteen hours of fame. Oliver Lane has already reported the report’s key points. The losers, as always, will be the nation’s children. The recommendations will never see the light of day, thanks to the crushing inertia of the British educational system

Mindlessly cherry-picking recommendations 

The risk with any lengthy research report is that academically-impoverished individuals will resort to cherry-picking headlines from media coverage, rather than reading the report’s detailed recommendations for themselves. “It’s scary to think how vulnerable busy teachers and professionals are to folk wisdom”, writes Loic Menzies, a teacher and founder of education think-tank LKMco. A considered research paper gets turned into Buzzfeed-style click-bait. Even the supposedly august Times Educational Supplement has already run a story about the report’s recommendations headlined 7 Deadly Sins of Teaching.

One of the most controversial findings appears to suggest that excessive praise can be detrimental to pupils. Any parent knows this instinctively. But, Menzies writes, “it then risks giving rise to similar hyper-simplification: watch this space, I predict teachers will soon be told by well-meaning mentors, tutors and consultants to stop praising their pupils.”

Teachers pitted against each other for pupils’ admiration

The authors of the report list six methods for measuring the effectiveness of teaching; three in particular are singled out as being reliable – observation in the classroom, measuring gains in pupils’ academic achievement and feedback from pupils themselves. 

Career-climbing headteachers use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than for illumination. 

Already fixated on data chugging, Ofsted-obsessed headteachers will prioritise pupils’ feedback over observation or measurement of pupils’ academic progress using a range of different metrics. Allocating resources to a survey on which teachers the kids like is much easier than conducting a robust debate among your teachers about assessment. Spurious studies, claiming that teaching of media studies or textiles is now the most “effective”, according to pupils, will surely follow. Common sense dictates that children don’t always like what’s good for them.

An entire cottage industry of consultants and INSET training already exists around incorporating “pupil voice” in schools. This twisted interpretation of Professor Coe’s recommendations will only fuel its growth.

Schools have bigger issues to worry about

Classroom practices are just aspect of schooling. For Britain’s teenagers, our defunct qualifications regime sadly has a bigger impact on their day-to-day experience of school than individual teachers.

Simon Smith, deputy head of Haileybury in Hertfordshire, said: “Next week my heads of department will, rather than addressing this report, continue to discuss how we implement the dog’s dinner that is the Government’s A Level and GCSE reforms.” 

Successive governments of all political colours have piffled with examinations, rather than giving it the kicking it so badly needs. Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, is promising to postpone changes if elected next year. Teachers and pupils are left uncertain.

And this is to say nothing of pupils’ behaviour. At schools like the Ian Mikardo School, which was featured recently in a Channel 5 documentary, pupils are free to swear at teachers and storm out of the classroom. No effective teaching can take place if headteachers prescribe laissez-faire attitudes towards disruptive behaviour and allow pupils to roam the school corridors at will.

There is no magic bullet. Politicians, civil servants and local authority managers will pile in, promoting their pet time-sapping initiative. Ofsted will add a couple more check-boxes to their inspectors’ clipboards.
Professor Coe sought to find out What makes great teaching? – the one certainty from this report is that the blob-caravanserai will make sure that teachers being treated as grown-ups and practising their profession in the classroom without interference won’t be a permitted answer.

Adam D’Souza is an aspiring teacher and co-founder of The Shakespeare Academy. He writes for Breitbart London on how big government is ruining our children’s education. @adamdsouza