I suppose the heading of this blog is a trifle tendentious, though not without justification. The Cambridge Primary Review (CPR) was all about evidence. Some of it ministers liked, some of it they didn’t. By and large, their reactions reflected not the authority or veracity of the evidence we provided but the degree to which it sustained or challenged their political narrative. As a result, policies were as likely to be based on ideology, prejudice or populism as on evidence, and those who exposed this fundamental frailty, or highlighted the politically inconvenient truth, were pretty smartly shown the door.
Because CPR hoped to make a difference in policy circles as well as in the classroom, it investigated not only its various chosen aspects of primary education – childhood, learning, teaching, curriculum, assessment, leadership, school organisation, teacher education and so on – but also the evidence on which policies relating to each of these were based.
The relationship between policy and evidence that CPR uncovered was on occasions somewhat murky. The most problematic instance was the matter of educational standards over time and what causes them to rise and fall. CPR had commissioned no fewer than six independent research reviews in this area from teams of leading academics at five universities and NFER. Against the findings of the resulting six reports and other data CPR set official claims about trends in standards and the impact on those trends of government policies and initiatives.
Without going into detail that can be read in its final report (Children, their World, their Education, pages 471-4), CPR reported both good and less good news on standards – which in a large educational system serving a highly diverse society at a time of rapid change is what one would expect – but also a succession of grand political claims about standards, tests, accountability and school improvement that under scrutiny all too often dissolved into unsubstantiated assertion or downright falsehood.
This week there are two developments that enable us to bring the story up to date and consider the record of the current government. Has it maintained Labour’s uneasy relationship with evidence or has it displayed a more even-handed stance in the interest of making its policies as well founded as possible? In so doing, has it been prepared to accommodate the inconvenient truth?
The first pertinent development is the decision of the House of Commons Education Committee to launch an on-line enquiry into the way DfE uses evidence. The Committee has selected nine areas for scrutiny: phonics, teaching assistants, professional measurement metrics, the National College, summer-born children, universal infant free school meals, raising the participation age, music education, and the school starting age. In each case, DfE has been asked first to state the policy and second to cite the evidence on which it is based, and we the public are then asked to comment. In addition, lest it be thought that this list is too exclusive – there is no mention, for example, of the national curriculum, national assessment, standards, international comparisons, inspection, teacher education, academies, free schools or many other prominent and hotly debated areas of policy – respondents are invited to comment on DfE’s use of evidence in more general terms.
Cambridge Primary Review Trust will certainly respond, and we hope those reading this blog will do likewise. The deadline is Friday 12 December.
The other development is closer to home. In 2007, Cambridge Primary Review commissioned a research-based report on the pros and cons of different approaches to assessment from Professor Wynne Harlen, one of the best-respected experts in this field. This was revised for publication in 2010 in The Cambridge Primary Review Research Surveys.
Earlier this year we invited Professor Harlen to revisit and update her 2010 report to contribute to the CPRT’s pursuit of its eight priorities, one of which is assessment reform, taking account of recent developments (including the performance descriptors announced last week). This she has now done. Wynne’s 40-page report is accompanied by a three-page briefing or executive summary and both can be viewed and/or downloaded from the CPRT website.
Wynne Harlen’s CPRT report ends with separately-itemised implications for teachers, school leaders, teacher educators and policy makers. Wynne stresses the need for teaching strategies in which assessment for learning is fully embedded, especially in teachers’ questioning and feedback, and she urges government to raise the profile of properly moderated teacher assessment and to provide assessment guidance in all subjects rather than confine its efforts to literacy and numeracy. In this matter she reinforces one of CPR’s core messages, that literacy and numeracy tests are not valid proxies for quality and standards across the curriculum as a whole, and children have a right to a curriculum in which every element is taught to the highest possible standard regardless of how much or how little time is allocated to it, so we need valid and reliable information on how, in all such curriculum areas, they are progressing.
Assessment is one of the areas with which the House of Commons enquiry on evidence does not directly deal. However, DfE’s reaction to this new report, which is an aspect of education that is at once extremely important and highly contested, will provide a timely test of its claim that its policies are evidence-based.
More to the point, if the House of Commons enquiry comes up with conclusions that DfE finds unpalatable and therefore dismisses or rejects, we shall know exactly where on the matter of evidence the government truly stands.
- To contribute to the House of Commons enquiry into DfE’s use of evidence (closing date 12 December 2014) click here
- Download Wynne Harlen’s new CPRT report ‘Assessment, standards and quality of learning in primary education’.
- Download the 3-page briefing/summary of the Harlen assessment report.
- Read Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Journal of Education article about Labour and the evidence on primary school standards, 1997-2007.