March 2021 edition: The Great Education Question of the Day: Catch-up – What is it and What Should we be Doing?

The Great Education Question of the Day: Catch-up – What is it and What Should we be Doing?

Catch-up. It’s the term on everyone’s lips. Gaps have widened. Commentators and think tanks alike put forward competing superlatives for the scale of response required, not all of which are well evidenced.

Fortunately, there are policies that do hold promise. We know from research that tuition can make a powerful difference to pupil progress. A quick look at the Education Endowment Foundation’s evidence summary confirms this, but raises some key caveats as well:

  • The evidence is that "tuition should be additional to, but explicitly linked with, normal teaching.”

  • Small groups can be as good as or better than one to one – it is the approach to the teaching that makes the difference, not the precise group size.

  • Use of teaching assistants and volunteers tends to be less effective than using "experienced and specifically trained teachers, which have nearly twice the effect on average.”

  • Where non-teachers are deployed, "the use of a structured programme is advisable.”

These high-level findings remind us that tuition is not a simple panacea. As always when seeking solutions to complex problems, the best way forward is unlikely to be the simplest or the most obvious. Good teaching by expert teachers of a good curriculum (ideally the one being taught in school) is how children make faster progress.

Making faster progress does not mean rushing through content just for the sake of it. That is neither progress nor catch-up. It means being systematically taught, practicing, learning and remembering, the planned sequence of essential content. While many schools will go the extra mile to put in place tuition that meets this quality bar, ultimately the impact of the tuition approach will be limited by the supply of teachers able to provide it, or simply by the number of available hours.

It seems to me that while the ‘catch-up’ problem we face now may be unprecedented in scale it is similar in nature to the ‘gap closing’ challenge we have long faced. Sadly, over the years many initiatives designed to address that problem of differential outcomes, apparently determined by social or economic background, have floundered, and not always due to insufficient funding, as Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims note in the introduction to The Teacher Gap: "Spending more money on education, without direction, is the least effective [policy] of all.”

More optimistically, they note that"there is one thing that does have an impact: teacher quality. Research consistently shows that the quality of instruction, which in turn depends on the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers, is a powerful determinant of pupil learning… no other attribute of schools comes close. Moving a child from an average to a top teacher’s class means they will learn in six months what would otherwise have taken twelve. … If improving the quality of education is the public policy holy grail, teachers are the ones who will find it for us.”

The same point is made clearly, with EEF endorsement, in the newly published Teacher Development NPQ Framework: "Helping teachers improve through evidence-based professional development that is explicitly focused on improving classroom teaching can be a cost-effective way to improve pupils’ academic outcomes when compared with other interventions and can narrow the disadvantage attainment gap.”

Good teaching by expert teachers of a good curriculum (ideally the one being taught in school) is how children make faster progress.

Ian Bauckham

This then needs to be right at the heart of our catch-up strategy. It may not be as headline-grabbing as a new promise of extra funding of eye-watering proportions. To note, I am not knocking extra money, but how it is spent is the critical thing, not the simple quantum. Investing first and foremost in the development of teacher expertise has the twin benefit of being proven to be successful at closing gaps and that increased quantum of professional expertise will outlast the emergency, thus increasing capacity in the longer term. A good investment all round.

Fortunately, work is well underway in investing in and developing teacher professional expertise as teaching is gradually transformed into an evidence-based based profession. The Early Career Framework (ECF), being rolled out nationally from this September, and the new NPQs are just two examples. At the heart of the review of the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is a similar drive to ensure that teacher training centres firmly on the evidence in both content and delivery.

There are those who say that so many new ‘initiatives’ are too much and a distraction when schools really need to concentrate on ‘catch-up’. I hope by now it will be clear that precisely the opposite is the case. If we are going not only to ‘catch-up’ the gaps widened further by COVID-19, we need to implement with even greater urgency the evidence-based reforms to teaching, and to the initial training and professional development of teachers, which were conceived to narrow albeit more modest gaps which have been a challenge for so long.

The COVID-19 crisis must not be an excuse for avoiding these essential reforms but should give them even greater urgency. We do not need to invent a new approach to tackle the consequences of COVID-19. We must trust the evidence we have accumulated in recent decades and hold our nerve in implementation.

This, in the long run, will be more powerful and beneficial to the nation’s children, and to the standing and expertise of the teaching profession, than any hastily invented, reactive or short-term portfolio of ‘interventions.’ Let us not lose sight of the importance of investing additional funding wisely, keeping the focus all the time on the development of teacher expertise in the light of the evidence we now have about how curricula are best designed and how children, and indeed teachers, learn. Our most disadvantaged young people will benefit disproportionately from such an approach.