“We need a world class, academically rigorous and highly trained teaching profession to transform education,” the Shadow Minister for Schools Mike Kane said yesterday (December 7).
Mr Kane was speaking at the launch of “Making the Case for the Social Sciences 12 – Education”, a new publication from the Academy of Social Sciences and its Campaign for Social Science on the ways research has improved education policy and practice.
In his keynote speech before an audience of MPs, policy makers, academics and educators at the launch event in Portcullis House, Mr Kane spoke of the need for data and evidence to inform education policy decisions, as well as the power of social science research to narrow the gap in student attainment, overcome inequality, and raise teaching standards.
The former schoolteacher said that teaching should not be viewed simply as a “craft.” Rather, more academic evidence was needed on how to produce good teachers and strong school leaders. Greater clarity on the routes into the teaching profession, which at the moment are too numerous, is one way of redressing this disparity.
He highlighted the regional divide that persists in educational standards across the UK, questioning why rural and “post-industrial towns” weren’t getting the same quality graduates and teaching as urban centres. Addressing this “huge inequality in our school systems”, he cited evidence where only 34 per cent of pupils on free school meals in areas of the Northern Powerhouse achieve 5 GCSEs, compared to 45 per cent in London. “We need evidence-based analysis as to why that’s happening,” he said.
He said the problem with the education debate is that too often politicians think about the way things were when they were in school.
“We know that social science facts can be predicted, tested and proven,” but ultimately rely on the interpretation of politicians. That’s why “good data on education” – especially in a “post-truth age” – is needed to help inform sound policy decisions, while academic rigour is required into how students learn in the classroom. He added that it is the “duty of researchers” to grow their power in the right circles, ensuring that their evidence and analysis influences government policy.
He also called for a “reliable yardstick” that measures pupil attainment, saying this is dependent on sound evidence like the research featured in the booklet.
“At the moment we judge our schools by very narrow categories. We need an assessment criteria that isn’t just a snapshot analysis, but a proper inspection system that is fit for purpose and works with our schools and teachers.” At the same time, regional accountability was needed to reflect local needs, not just bureaucratic benchmarks.
Mr Kane praised the newest booklet for showcasing the vital role of social science expertise in informing policy and leading to real improvements in student outcomes, teaching standards and school quality. “The case studies featured throughout ‘Making the Case – Education’ provide a valuable blueprint for how evidence can address and transform some of the longstanding challenges we face in education policy and practice,” he said.
Mr Kane’s comments came just two days after the publication of PISA results showing improvements needed in key areas in UK student achievement. He questioned the fairness of the testing system, citing this as additional evidence of the need for tests that “properly assess” performance.
Dame Alison Peacock echoed Mr Kane when she spoke about the challenges in the teaching profession. “The best teachers are those who love learning”, she said, adding that it is important to make knowledge more accessible to teachers in order to empower them. Teachers currently experience high accountability but low autonomy. She said we must celebrate what works, tell more positive stories, and find where good learning is taking place.
Professor David James FAcSS, who chaired the booklet advisory group, said “There is very robust evidence that educational research in the UK is world class. This booklet is just a tiny cross section of that. Independent research of this calibre is a hallmark of a democratic society.”
The audience also heard from two of the booklet contributors. Professor Paul Connolly of Queen’s University, Belfast spoke about how early education programmes helped overcome cultural biases in areas of conflict. Professor Lorraine Dearden FAcSS of UCL Institute of Education presented her research on the “summer-born penalty”, highlighting how “something as arbitrary as when you start school can have a major impact on life chances.” Her work led to the government granting parents more flexibility on when children could start school.
The 12th issue in the “Making the Case for the Social Sciences” series – showcasing social science research that has made a difference to policy and practice – was brought together by an expert advisory group chaired by Professor David James FAcSS, Director, ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Centre and Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. The group included Joan Mowatt, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde and Professor Joanne Hughes, Director of the Centre for Shared Education at Queen’s University, Belfast. The Academy and Campaign are indebted to them, and to the booklet’s sponsors, the British Educational Research Association and Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, who provided the necessary financial support.