Sheffield Conference Keynotes

18 July 2018

The ‘Making Evidence Work in Schools’ conference on June 15th saw keynote speeches delivered by Doctor Jonathan Sharples and Professor Becky Francis. One theme that came through both presentations is how evidence is enacted in practice, and why sometimes there is still a disconnect between them.

Professor Francis looked at this through the lens of her recent research into attainment grouping  in Maths and English, a practice that persists despite some compelling evidence that suggests it leads to poorer progress for disadvantaged pupils. She suggested that this is due to a combination of factors including: short term mindsets and mixed messages from government; challenges and gaps in the body of research; and school leaders being unaware of what is happening on the ground.

Some of the most striking findings involved the misallocation of pupils based on their Key Stage 2 results. In Maths, the likelihood of tracking in lower sets are:

·         Black students 2.54 times more likely than White students

·         Asian students 1.77 times more likely than White students

·         Girls 1.55 times more likely than boys

Unsurprisingly, which set you are in impacts on self-confidence in that subject and towards setting, and indeed being placed in lower sets has also been shown to have an impact on a pupil’s general self-confidence, perhaps partly because setting in one subject, such as English, often leads to being timetabled in that group for other subject areas.

Professor Francis provided a helpful checklist of good practice if setting is being used at a school:

•       Do make setting as subject specific as possible

•       Do group students by attainment only

•       Do retest regularly and move between groups

•       Do make sure all students have access to a rich curriculum

•       Do ensure all sets are equally likely to be taught by a subject expert

Despite the evidence, Professor Francis also stressed the point that while the research suggests setting may create disadvantages for certain pupils, there is limited evidence looking at whether mixed attainment grouping is actually a more beneficial approach.

This chimed with Dr Sharples’ comments that you need a “range of information to get a range of answers,” highlighting how important it is to look at trends (not single year datasets) in your own school data, as well as external evidence, in order for schools to take ownership of any changes they are making. He cautioned against potentially “clumsy interpretations” caused by only surface level engagement with tools such as the EEF Toolkit, and urged delegates to consider the Guidance Report on ‘Putting Evidence to Work in Schools’ to give a process, and sense of timescale, to making changes at a school wide level.

Dr Sharples closed by widening the picture further to consider how evidence-informed changes can be made system wide and he pointed towards the need for different “ecosystems”, such as teacher training and Ofsted, to have research woven through them. However, he described himself as “exhilarated” by how the education sector is embracing research.





Posted on 18 July 2018
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