Raising attainment and reducing teacher workload

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Since 2008 the Government has accepted two important truths about education in England’s schools, but has decided to inform schools about only one of them. The first is that attainment in our schools hasn’t risen since the 1990s. This is shown by all three of the main international education surveys: PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS. These surveys can be criticised, but when all three show the same – that, overall, standards in England’s schools have flatlined for 20+ years – they can’t be ignored.

This diagram and the next are from Robert Coe’s brilliant paper Improving education: a triumph of hope over experience http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf

As Coe shows, this lack of improvement was disguised by GCSE results which showed a year on year increase of A – C grades (subsequently A* – C) from 29.9 per cent in 1988 when GCSE began to 81.1 per cent in 2012, a rise not remotely paralleled anywhere else in the world. This was caused mainly by the Exam Boards competing for market share – each anxious not to set exams that were more demanding than the other Boards, causing grade inflation.

By 2008 the Government accepted that the mismatch between the international surveys and the GCSE results was unacceptable and created Ofqual, first to research the extent of grade inflation and then with statutory powers to control the Exam Boards.

By 2010 the Coalition Government declared two overarching policies: to raise attainment in England’s schools to match the world’s highest-achieving education systems and to raise attainment by students leaving school with poor qualifications or none – see The Importance of Teaching White Paper (2010) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175429/CM-7980.pdf These are cross-party policies – Labour supports them and the other practical policies brought in to support them: pupil premium, Progress 8 and investment of £125 million in research on raising attainment through the Education Endowment Foundation.

So far so good. The second truth, unmentioned by governments, is that, since the 90s, teachers have been required to work harder than ever before but this has had no effect on overall attainment in schools. Two major causes of increased workload were the National Strategies (1997 – 2011) which developed a formulaic teacher-led style of teaching (learning objectives, starter, episodes evidenced in writing, plenary) rolled out nationally by a private company, Capita; and Ofsted’s demand for evidence of frequent assessment of pupils’ work in relation to target National Curriculum levels or GCSE grades and its requirement that every pupil should visibly make progress in every lesson. These policies were introduced without any research evidence that they would raise attainment and they didn’t.

In 2008, faced with the evidence of flatlining attainment the Government decided to discontinue the strategies in 2011 when Capita’s contract expired and Ofsted quietly withdrew its requirements about frequent assessment and progress in every lesson. But the Government has never made clear to schools that the National Strategies and Ofsted’s earlier policies failed to raise standards – Labour from embarrassment at spending millions on the Strategies without effect and the Coalition and Conservatives because decisions on teaching and learning are devolved wholly to schools. As a result, SLTs in many schools continue policies that were discredited nearly 10 years ago, requiring teachers to teach and assess in time-consuming ways which don’t raise attainment, because they have never been informed otherwise.

This has several unfortunate effects. First, excessive workload is leading to recruitment problems with rising staff turnover, burn-out, and more early retirements. The DfE has recognised this – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload – and Ofsted now says it will ask headteachers how they plan to reduce staff workload – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/exclusive-ofsted-ask-headteachers-how-they-plan-reduce-teachers

Second, the primary curriculum has narrowed over the years brought about by the pressures of external assessment and accountability, and an effective Key Stage 3 curriculum is being weakened as more schools begin GCSE courses earlier than Year 10 and start assessing students by GCSE Assessment Objectives. Ofsted is now starting to focus on this –


The full report won’t be out until next Spring but, under Amanda Spielman the new HMCI, Ofsted is already making it clear that they expect to see not simply a “broad and balanced” curriculum, but one that ensures depth and quality of learning. It seems that Ofsted intends to concern itself at last with the actual quality of teaching and learning, not just the appearance of it.

So how do we raise attainment without further increasing workload? The EEF has commissioned researchers at the University of Durham to summarise the international research on 34 possible ways of raising attainment in schools, relating their effectiveness to their cost. This is published as a Teaching and Learning Toolkit to encourage an evidence-based approach to raising attainment https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/teaching-learning-toolkit Here is Robert Coe’s visual summary of the Toolkit.

It will be seen that the most effective approaches all relate to practical aspects of teaching: feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring, collaboration (i.e. groupwork) and, in secondary schools, well-designed homework. These approaches also feature high in John Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers (2012). There is strong overlap with Dialogic Teaching developed by Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer.

So how should schools raise attainment by all their pupils by improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning? And how can SLTs be persuaded (as international evidence has shown for 20 years) that repeated assessment against targets leads to teaching-to-the-test, not higher attainment? A good way would be to adopt a programme which:

  • requires pupils to think. As Coe and many others point out: “Learning happens when people have to think hard.”
  • incorporates the features that the EEF Toolkit shows raise attainment most: effective feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring and collaboration leading to well-designed homework
  • provides a large number of high-interest model lessons and a programme of support to help teachers implement the programme effectively
  • is based on rigorous research to convince sceptical SLTs of the need for change.

It won’t surprise you that the programme which best fulfils all these requirements is Adey and Shayer’s Cognitive Acceleration (CA), now renamed Let’s Think. This was devised at King’s College London for Science in the 1970s and 80s, for Maths in the 1990s and for English since 2009. Other programmes like Philosophy for Children and Dialogic Teaching incorporate some of the four elements, but only CA/LT provides all four.