Category Archives: Research

Covid has put wellbeing in schools front and centre

Covid has put wellbeing in schools front and centre

The school shutdowns during the Covid pandemic may feel like a distant memory. But the effects of this period are still being felt in schools today — and pupil wellbeing is one of the biggest casualties, as explored recently by Dr Caron Carter on this SIOE blog. Caron examined how the lockdowns affected children’s social and emotional lives – including by limiting opportunities for play and friendship. Her piece concluded with some practical strategies for adults working to boost children’s wellbeing post-pandemic.

Here, we come at the topic from a different perspective to complement Caron’s insights. We were commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), along with Ipsos UK and CfEY to explore how schools in England were recovering from the effects of the pandemic.  The findings are published in the School Recovery Strategies report.

The research spanned two academic years, from 2020-2022. We conducted in-depth interviews with senior leaders in primary and secondary schools in England, most recently in summer 2022. Along with Ipsos survey data from over 1,750 schools, the results paint a stark picture, notwithstanding some green shoots of recovery.

Wellbeing matters

When we were commissioned by the DfE to study schools’ recovery, the government’s focus was on children’s academic performance and catch-up. But the more we spoke to school leaders, we realised that pupils’ psychological wellbeing was a top priority.

As we know, wellbeing is important in itself, but it’s also foundational to academic performance. As one leader said, ‘For us it [is] about wellbeing first. That has to come first.’

In our conversations with leaders, we were struck by the range of emotional, behavioural and wellbeing challenges faced by pupils, and the gravity of some of the examples. Anxiety was commonplace among pupils, and for some it continues to be so severe that they cannot attend school – contributing to the high rates of persistent absenteeism. One secondary leader told us:

‘Parents [say] “We’re trying our hardest to get these kids to move but they won’t come out of their bedroom and they’re just sitting in the house all day…” They’ve had so much time at home that I think that had a massive impact on what they can and can’t do… We’ve offered every single one of those [a range of measures to support return], and we’re finding that it’s very, very hard to get them back to school.’

Eating disorders and self-harm by pupils were also on the increase. One secondary head said:

The anxiety and self-harming is through the roof… Not a day goes by that we don’t take sharp objects off these children.’

Evidence of more subtle (but significant) impacts on wellbeing for learning also emerged. Leaders reported that pupils were less able to sustain concentration, struggled to bounce back after disappointments, and were giving up more readily than before the pandemic. This was hindering academic recovery, especially for the most disadvantaged pupils.

In younger year groups, maturity levels were lagging behind age-norms, affecting social development and readiness for learning.  A secondary head illustrated the point:

Mindset and behaviour in KS3 – [they’re] still very primary in the way that they behave in the playground. Taking each other’s ties, moving a seat when someone is about to sit down, that kind of thing. Babyish behaviour.”

Leaders attributed these delays, in part, to missed transition activities and social interactions during lockdowns, and to class ‘bubbles’ at school, limiting exposure to older role models.

Will it take a generation to recover?

We asked leaders how long they thought recovery would take. Some estimated that pupils will need at least three years to bounce back; others predicted that children would feel the impacts throughout their school careers and beyond. One secondary leader said: “Thinking from primary through to secondary, it’s going to take a generation.”

Systemic factors are slowing down that recovery. As more pupils are presenting with increasingly complex needs, delays in assessment and appropriate support are additional barriers. Leaders called for more funding for SEND, improved access to external agencies such as CAMHS and counselling services, and better training for staff to support pupils with mental health issues.

Adding to the crisis…

The pandemic affected staff wellbeing too. School staff worked incredibly hard across a tumultuous period, often beyond their education remit, to provide frontline support for families in the absence of other services. Staff felt increasingly demoralised and frustrated by policy responses and underfunding. No surprise that schools are struggling to retain and recruit staff and are now resorting to strike action.

Finally, the cost-of-living crisis cannot be ignored. It is exacerbating the pandemic’s effects, particularly for growing numbers of vulnerable pupils, but without a similar scale of recovery funding. Ever-increasing pressures on budgets meant that leaders were anticipating significant cuts and sacrifices, including reducing their teaching assistant workforce — the very people tasked with delivering recovery interventions.  We also heard of pupils absent from school because their parents could no longer afford to drive them. Since then, the financial stress on many families has risen dramatically. Hunger and poverty are further damaging pupils’ learning.

The future

Our report is a snapshot of a school system in crisis. Leaders expressed gratitude for the government’s recovery funds and tutoring schemes, but most stressed that it was nowhere near enough. Better funding was urgently needed to support long-term wellbeing and academic recovery.  Accountability measures like Ofsted and the exam system should reflect the pandemic’s sustained impacts. Although many leaders felt that a huge opportunity to reset education has been lost, let’s at least ensure that wellbeing is kept at the front and centre of teaching and learning.

Bernadette Stiell and Ben Willis are both Senior Research Fellows in the Sheffield Institute of Education Research and Knowledge Exchange (SIRKE). The authors would like to thank Lisa Clarkson and Rhys Edwards for their valuable input.



The bigger picture: taking a systems approach to encouraging research use in education

This post originally appeared on the BERA blog and is shared here with BERA’s kind permission:

 Whilst it is not always easy to see the tectonic plates moving, a culture shift appears to be occurring in English schools towards widespread engagement with research (Department for Education, 2022). Yet, when we consider the development of evidence-informed practice we often focus on schools and teachers, rather than the education system as a whole. In a recent Review of Education paper we have taken a wider perspective to consider the overall systems in which research evidence is produced, mobilised and used (available here).

But what exactly do we mean by a ‘research use system’ in education and what are the potential implications for schools, policy makers and intermediary organisations?

A system can be defined as “a set of components that work together as a whole to achieve a common goal. A system is greater than the sum of its constituent components because the relationship between the different components adds value to the system” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019). In that respect, a loaf of bread could be considered as a system, in that you take a group of separate ingredients – flour, water etc. – and add the action of heat and yeast to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts. Systems are also dynamic and constantly evolving, which also applies to a loaf of bread as it is initially baked then goes dry over time.

It is with this systems perspective that we recently examined efforts by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to mobilise its guidance on ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ and, in particular, activities to support the development of evidence-informed practices at a regional level. Research use in this project emerged as a dynamic process that relied on the alignment of multiple factors and activities relating to evidence production, mediation and use. It was influenced, for example, by the quality and usefulness of the evidence, the receptiveness and capacity of schools as evidence users, and the presence of research intermediaries. Furthermore, research use didn’t take place in isolation, but instead sat within the broader contexts in which schools operate e.g., regional policy, school improvement, accountability.

Put simply, research use is as a myriad of interconnected ‘moving parts’ that need to function optimally and be aligned. Weakness in any area of the system, or interactions between different actors and activities across the system, can potentially impede research use. It is a strong as its weakest link.

A system-based approach to research use has some potential implications for policy makers, and, indeed, anyone who is interested in developing an evidence-informed education system:

  1. Failure to acknowledge the complexity of research use systems is likely to result in less-than-optimal interventions to improve research use.

Current approaches to supporting research use in education typically underplay the complexity of systems change. There has been a growing recognition that simply ‘packaging and posting’ research is unlikely, by itself, to impact significantly on decision-making and behaviours (Nutley et al, 2007). Taking a systems perspective on research use encourages us to see the complex interdependencies between different actors and activities and so gain a deeper understanding of the factors at play.

  1. There is value in exploring multi-stranded mobilisation strategies that work together at different levels of the system e.g., school, regional policy, national.

One of the characteristics of research use systems is the high degree of interdependence between activities at different levels of the system e.g., school, regional, national.  EEF’s ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ scale-up campaign illustrates how mobilisation activities at different levels can influence each other e.g., press/media engagement; influencing national and regional policy. A systems perspective encourages you to think strategically about how different mobilisation activities interact and reinforce each other.

  1. Create receptivity for research use

As discussed, research use activities do not operate in isolation, but sit within the broader contexts and systems in which schools operate. Policy makers should therefore consider how the wider systems in education – e.g., accountability, school improvement, teacher training – can enhance effective research use. They should promote evidence use as a clear priority throughout the system to encourage alignment and consistent expectations across the sector.

  1. A systems perspective can be used to examine the functioning of existing systems and make informed decisions on where best to intervene.

Applying a systems lens creates opportunities to examine the existing research-use systems and make informed decisions as to where best to intervene. It can identify impediments and enablers to research use, which can then inform the choice of intervention strategies (Gough et al, 2021). For example, if an identified limiting factor within the system is the capability of schools to critique and interpret evidence, activities that build the capacity and skills of schools as research users would be a worthwhile strategy to consider.


Department for Education (2022) School and College Panel – March 2022 wave

Research Report. Department for Education

Gough, D., Maidment, C., & Sharples, J. (2021). Enabling knowledge brokerage intermediaries to be evidence-informed. Evidence & Policy, 1–15.

Maxwell, B., Sharples, J., Coldwell, M. (2022) Developing a systems-based based approach to research-use in education. Review of Education 10(3)1-26

Nutley, S., Walter, I., & Davies, H. (2007). Using evidence: How research can inform the public services. Policy Press.

Ndaruhutse, S. et al (2019). Why systems thinking is important for the education sector. Education Development Trust

Professor Jonathan Sharples is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Education Endowment Foundation, seconded from UCL Institute of Education. He works with schools and policy makers in the UK, and internationally, to promote evidence-informed practice and spread knowledge of ‘what works’ in teaching and learning. He is the lead author of EEF’s ‘School’s Guide to Implementation’.

Professor Bronwen Maxwell is an Emerita Professor at Sheffield Hallam University who has led many large scale research and evaluation studies focused on research use in education and teachers’ professional learning, knowledge and development.

Professor Mike Coldwell is a Professor of Education at Sheffield Hallam University. His research focuses on professional learning, education policy and research use in education.



Shaping South Yorkshire

Last week the Princess of Wales launched the Shaping Us campaign aimed at raising awareness of the importance of early childhood experiences in how we develop physically, socially and emotionally. The campaign starts from the premise that:

“The way we develop, through our experiences, relationships, and surroundings during our early childhood, fundamentally shapes our whole lives. It affects everything from our ability to form relationships and thrive at work, to our mental and physical well-being as adults and the way we parent our own children.”

This will not come as news to anyone who works with young children and their families or who is familiar with a range of research in fields as diverse as child development, health inequalities and economics. In all these areas there are powerful arguments that outcomes are improved, and society gains when resources are invested in meeting the needs of young children and their families. Politically there has been interest in intervening to support parents during those crucial first few years from the Sure Start programmes, Free Early Learning places, Children’s Centres and now Family Hubs.

Despite this interest, and some periods of significant investment, the gap in outcomes between children growing up in poverty and their more advantaged peers is no longer narrowing according to a Nuffield Study. Additionally, health inequalities, many of which start in early childhood, are actually widening. This situation has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, a recruitment and retention crisis in the early years workforce and the closure of early years courses.

Sheffield Hallam University is very active in this space in their civic role and in 2021 opened the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC) in Shirecliffe in Sheffield. The centre has a nursery that provides places for children aged 2-3 years-old who are deemed to be economically disadvantaged and entitled to 15 hours per week in nursery. To date, 80 families have been supported through the centre, and a research study with a sample of parents and carers in 2022 revealed how vital this nursery place was, not just in supporting the child’s development but in meeting the needs of the whole family. Parents reported how isolated they had become during the pandemic and how anxious this had made them about their child’s development. For example, one parent commented:

“He was more like a baby when he first came here, like a baby, you know, and now he doesn’t want his bottle as much and his dummy. He’s not bothered. He will just come and play. And he is becoming a little toddler now, not a baby anymore.”

And another reflected on how the nursery provision had reduced her anxiety:

“It means I get time on my own, because I’m a single parent and I’ve got two children, and Molly is my granddaughter, but I’ve got her full time, so obviously I’ve had no time whatsoever. Nobody takes then overnight or anything, so I don’t get a break. So having this nursery place earlier, for Molly, is just- it’s made me feel better, and I’m not on high alert 24/7.”

Parents and carers also reported that the nursery staff were a great source of support and information about their child’s health and development. They found that through being supported in a non-judgemental way they had gained confidence in the services and were now attending the parents’ breakfast club and other activities at the centre:

“Because of Wendy coming here, I am looking to either going back in to work or applying for a university place. I don’t usually like making friends. I’ve got social anxiety. But quite a few of the mums here that I talk to go to breakfast club now, so I sit with them.”

The opening of the EYCRC has led to Hallam’s involvement with a fascinating project funded through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. This initiative asks cities or city regions to gather a team of eight members drawn from relevant stakeholders to address a problem their area is facing. The team is then supported to work through the root causes of the problem and identify potential solutions. I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the eight from South Yorkshire, chosen by the regional mayor Oliver Coppard and the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to look at health inequalities in early years and how they impact negatively across a person’s life. The problem identified is that health inequalities are stark in South Yorkshire and getting worse for young children and their families. Next week we will be joining other teams from across the USA and from Helsinki in New York City to start to develop potential solutions with the support of academics from Harvard and the Bloomberg team. The team recognises that this will be a huge challenge, but we are all committed to looking at how we can build a preventative, supportive system upstream for families and young children rather than waiting to help them out of the river downstream. I am hopeful that the current focus on early years is a window of opportunity for us to address these issues for the long-term. This is an opportunity that we have to grasp.

Professor Sally Pearse
Sally is the Strategic Lead for Early Years at Sheffield Hallam University and the Director of the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC). Since 2017 Sally, has led the work with early years colleagues from across South Yorkshire to develop a range of collaborative projects. These have included a £1million project, funded through the DfE Early Outcomes Fund to transform the regions speech, language and communication services and the development of the EYCRC in Sheffield. The project is now delivering nursery places and family support in an area of social and economic challenge.

Can COVID-19 break the rigid opposition to teachers working flexibly?

It feels strange to talk about a global pandemic having upsides, but as we approach the end of many restrictions in the UK, it seems apt to reflect on what lessons we might learn from the life-changing experience we’ve all been through.  As a Sheffield Business School academic with a passion for exploring professional lives, I spent last year researching teachers’ experiences of working remotely.

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Children in summer clothes with back packs walking.

Midsummer Right Scheming

Midsummer 2021, and once again a Government report is expressing concern for working-class pupils – but seemingly only the White onesi.  The statistical ‘data driven’ evidence in the report suggest objectivity and ‘fact’ but the obvious cherry-picking of evidence, seeming lack of concern about statistical accuracy and subjective bias in the discussion bely such naïve perceptions.   Statistics and racism have history.  From its’ eugenics origins, statistics have been used to obfuscate, camouflage and even legitimate racist inequitiesii.  This history requires quantitative research to adopt a critical eye if it is to avoid perpetuating crimes of the past.  Scholars in the UKiii and USiv have published around this recently and in 2016 Gillborn, et alv outlined five ‘QuantCrit’ principles to help guide quantitative enquiry in helping challenge and change racial inequality.   HC 85 along with the Sewell/CRED reportvi and the Timpson review of school exclusionvii are recent examples of Government reports that have lacked this critical eye.  This seems common around the politics of statistics; whether due to empirical naivety/ignorance or to a more pernicious political agenda, is unclear.

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Evidence-Informed Teacher Professional Development

Ahead of the Improving Standards of Teaching Through Continuing Professional Development forum taking place in London on Wednesday 3rd October, Dr Emily Perry, who will be chairing the event, shares her thoughts on how the ‘evidence-informed’ agenda, present across the education system, can be extended to also influence CPD models.

In teaching we have an ongoing move towards an ‘evidence-informed’ system, in which teachers and schools draw on evidence from research to make informed choices about ‘what works’. However, in teacher professional development, we are lagging behind. National and international studies have built up our collective knowledge of effective professional development and the impact that this can have on teachers’ practice, careers and retention in the profession, and the characteristics of effective professional development are well-established enough that the DFE has drawn them together in the CPD Standards.

These lists of characteristics can be helpful as a checklist when planning, evaluating and quality assuring CPD. However, they tend to lack a focus on a vital component of CPD: the facilitators. By facilitators I mean the people who plan, develop and deliver workshops, courses and other CPD activities for teachers. They may be teachers, consultants, academics or combinations of those and other roles. From numerous studies we know that the role of facilitator is complicated. It covers multiple activities including teacher, coach and critical friend and involves tricky balancing acts between supporting teachers as peers while still providing challenge and being a knowledgeable expert.

My own research has confirmed this complexity, showing that facilitators acknowledge but don’t appear to struggle with these potentially competing roles. They describe facilitation as including teaching and being more than teaching. Working with experienced teachers is substantially different from working with children (or with inexperienced teachers), and facilitation often includes modelling of teaching approaches, and using active learning with lots of teacher talk.

These approaches reflect the evidence around effective professional development.  But while facilitators use their knowledge and experience of teaching and of facilitation, they rarely draw on the evidence about professional development itself. For example, they don’t often appear to consider the evidence from research about particular evaluation models, such as whether a phone call to a sample of participants might provide more useful feedback than a written form completed by everybody. Nor, apparently, would they often reflect on whether particular models of CPD, such as collaborative curriculum development, might lead to greater learning and impact than, say, action research.

Few formalised development programmes exist for facilitators and most draw on their existing skills and knowledge, their experiences as a teacher and a facilitator, and on (rare) opportunities to work in collaboration with others; they tend not to look for the evidence from research.

This is not a criticism of facilitators. As a CPD facilitator myself I appreciate its many challenges and constraints. But it does highlight that, while we are hoping for teachers to use evidence to inform their practice in the classroom, we are not yet aiming for facilitators of CPD to do the same.  We need to work together to find ways to help facilitators to gain access to evidence from research and to support them to share experiences, collaborate, learn from other experts, challenge and be challenged. In other words, we should ensure that our CPD for CPD facilitators models the evidence about effective CPD.

Originally published through 

Research-Engaged Practice in Education

This month the Research-Engaged Practice Network (REPN) are back after a brief period of rest, with research being presented from a range of practitioner-led perspectives, including the Primary Science for All project, the Research Schools Network and South Yorkshire Futures. For those that aren’t aware of the REPN, it provides a way in which all those engaged in research can learn about each other’s research, develop their research skills and share findings from their own research. The environment is informal, friendly and supportive: we are all researchers together, no matter what your level of engagement and we all learn from each other.

Practitioner engagement with research why is it important?

In education, over the last few years, emphasis on practitioners’ engagement with research has grown. The Welsh government commissioned us to help to strengthen the capacity for an evidence-based, research-informed initial teacher education system in Wales. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Research Schools Network and ResearchEd are also gaining strength.  Colleagues in schools who are leading or working on bids to the Strategic School Improvement Fund or to the Education Endowment Foundation will have responded to the requirement to provide evidence of “what works”.

At school level, it’s great that increasing numbers of teachers are engaged in research through activities such as lesson study, action research or teacher research groups.  However, it can be a challenge for teachers to turn evidence from research into improved practice.  As my colleague Mike Coldwell has pointed out, evidence for some strategies can gather unwarranted traction in the system, while evidence for others may be largely ignored.

Colleagues in the SIOE, working with the University of Durham and the UCL Institute of Education, recently published a report for the DfE on the ways in which schools engage (or not) with research.  They suggest that there are three ways in which schools and teachers engage with research:

  • looking for evidence from research carried out by other organisations
  • use of school data to identify problems, followed by adaptation of research evidence to the school context
  • carrying out research into or evaluation of changes in practice

Findings of this report have now been developed into a set of practical tools for teachers and school leaders.  These tools help teachers to engage with and utilise research findings.

In the SIOE, not surprisingly, we also engage with research, and we have our own version of the three ways listed above to show a variety of types of engagement with research:

  • engaging in reading, listening to or otherwise learning about other people’s research
  • drawing on our own, colleagues’ and others’ research in our practice
  • carrying out our own research
  • using research to influence policy and other people’s practice
  • supervising postgraduate research students

These different types of engagement show that practitioners can engage with research on multiple levels at different stages of their career, depending on their confidence and expertise. We know that, whatever your experience of engaging with research, there is great value in sharing this with other practitioners. Indeed, my colleagues reported that, while many teachers valued research evidence, they were unlikely to be convinced by it unless they heard colleagues discuss its impact on their practice or saw this impact for themselves.  The REPN events offer a friendly forum for this work to be shared amongst colleagues.

We hope to see you at the April Research-Engaged Practice Network (REPN) event and other that follow.

Emily Perry is the Head of Knowledge Exchange in The SIoE.

Changing writing

I can just remember the last two occasions on which I signed my name. The first, a fortnight ago, was when I validated a friend’s passport photograph and the second, only the other day, involved signing for a parcel – and for that I used a fingernail to scrawl my name on a handheld device. With the rise of card payment and the almost complete disappearance of handwritten letters and memos at work it seems like the signature is in terminal decline. Of course there are still some very important functions that signing fulfils, but they’re less common these days. Like other kinds of writing, signatures are changing. The point I want to make here is one that has preoccupied me throughout my research career. It’s quite simple. Writing is changing rapidly – and so is communication as a whole. And whether we like it or not, this is a challenge for educators at all levels.

In our recent book New Media in the Classroom Cathy Burnett and I tackle this issue by describing some of the creative ways in which early years and primary school teachers have encouraged children to use new forms of communication in the classroom. This is in full recognition of the popularity of Snapchat and WhatsApp, the ubiquity of touchscreen tablets and smartphones, and the rapid take up of hashtags and emojis. But what about writing your name, holding a pen or developing fine motor skills for a legible cursive hand?

When you profess an interest in the changing nature of writing, people seem to automatically assume that you don’t like pens, pencils or biros. But actually I’m interested in the whole rich tapestry of human communication from Roman clay tablets to Chinese typewriters; from the invention of moveable type in Korea (yes, Korea, not Germany as you may have thought) to the recent evolution of predictive text – not forgetting, of course the proliferation of YouTube channels – and that’s before you get to the SIoE blog and Twitter accounts! None of these have supplanted other means of communication. But yet full participation in social, civic and working life does always require a familiarity with the communicative tools involved. It’s not as if writing is dying out, it’s just that human communication is becoming more complex and more diverse.

The recent Guardian Roundtable on Handwriting was an attempt to get to grips with the implications of all this for schools. Should we be spending more time on letter formation or should we dump all that in favour of keyboard skills? Of course, the question itself over-simplifies the topic. Still the discussion had to pick its way between the rock of romanticism (the golden age of copperplate – wasn’t it beautiful?) and the hard place of futurism (speech recognition software will soon be so good that in five years time we’ll all be doing hands-free writing). In reality most of us still use pen and paper – we need those skills, but their share in the economy of communication is much reduced. I believe that children should have access to the full range of communication skills, and for those who for one reason or another find pencil control difficult, there are now other tools to choose from. At least for now you need to be able to sign your name as well as find your way around a keyboard. I’m very pleased about that, because as a teenager I invested considerable effort in perfecting a distinctive and marginally legible signature. At least I can still use it, from time to time!

Guy Merchant is a Professor of Literacy in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education 


Easy targets: learning styles, ‘ability’ grouping and the politics of research use in education

This month saw the publication of a report into evidence-informed teaching written by a team from the SIOE with colleagues from Durham and UCL. The report highlights the difficulties teachers can have in assessing research quality, and this brings to mind recent complaints in the press about a lack of evidence-informed teaching. Schools are using a practice that labels children as particular kinds of learners in a way that limits their opportunity to take part in a broad range of teaching and learning activities and may harm their futures. Not only that, but the underlying evidence base for this practice is limited at best.

I’m referring, of course, to grouping pupils by attainment…except – of course – I’m not. I’m referring to every research-engaged teacher’s neuromyth enemy number 1: Learning Styles. Yet the comparison with what is usually called ‘ability grouping’ is instructive. Learning styles are now increasingly rarely used in schools: ability grouping is almost ubiquitous. There is decades of evidence of the harmful effects of ability grouping on learners especially those that are lower attaining: there is no strong scientific basis for learning styles, and a weaker but persuasive evidence base regarding their negative effects on children’s learning.

So why do policymakers, bloggers and education pundits get so exercised by one but not the other?  The answer – at least in part – is simple: it’s politics. There is no political force behind the use of learning styles. The damning of schools, teachers and leaders that use them costs no political capital for anyone involved: and it has the added bonus that learning styles have a whiff of failed progressive education about them that allows politicians and pundits to feel even better about sticking the boot in.

In contrast, grouping by prior attainment has very different political connotations. It is traditional; it is common sense; it is very far from progressive education. The policymakers and commentators in the social and traditional media may not want to admit it, but the silence around ability grouping is a silence not borne of evidence but of political agendas.

To be clear: the evidence is persuasive that learning styles approaches are at best neutral and at worst detrimental, as the link above indicates. I am not advocating using learning styles. Yet I can make exactly the same claims about attainment grouping.

The research evidence movement has been presented to the teaching profession as neutral, dispassionate and unbiased. And whilst that is arguable in relation to the provision of research evidence from organisations like the EEF, it is clearly not the case in relation to the use of research evidence by those in the political sphere. (It is worth noting here the new work of Becky Francis and colleagues – summarised here – on looking more deeply at why policy makers won’t hear the evidence, and an argument for a strong counter-narrative based on the call to science).

We are advised to treat claims about new approaches to education with scepticism; to dig under the surface and look for what evidence lies beneath. Sound advice. The implication of this short blog is that we need to apply the same healthy scepticism to the political discourse and media coverage of research evidence. We should dig below the surface for the political agendas that drive the focus on learning styles, but are silent on the evidence on attainment grouping.

Mike Coldwell is Head of the Centre for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Sheffield Institute of Education

Guinness, Scandinavian noir and getting out more

Reaching the parts that others don’t reach

SIOE has a global presence engaging with governments, universities, schools, students and lecturers across the planet. In the last year the Centre for Development and Research in Education (CDARE) led teacher professional and curriculum development in the EU (Chain Reaction, Engage, TEMI), Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador, Ghana, the Philippines and India. But other than passports, visa forms, cheap flights and airport food what’s involved?

Guinness – love it or hate it?

I hate it. I tried it but someone had swapped the beer for a sample of second-hand sump oil with a smear of fabric conditioner (Acacia flower and walnut) on top. When I complained to my drinking partner he explained that ‘Guinness doesn’t travel’ and that if I wanted to enjoy it I’d have to go to Dublin.

So, while the UK has a reputation for an innovative approach to education and inquiry and practical work in particular does what works in Rotherham work in Rajasthan (with a few culturally-respectful modifications)? Unlike Guinness?

Many of the issues are similar: stuff to cover (the curriculum) in a learning environment (the classroom or lab) moderated by adults (the teachers) to youngsters (the students). I regularly have conversations along the lines of ‘everyone is obsessed about examination results’ (India, Thailand, Malaysia) and ‘our curriculum contains too much content’ (everywhere!) or ‘we don’t have enough lab space’ (The Philippines, India). But this masks deeper differences. In India, there is no reference in their science curricula to inquiry skills. In the Philippines, I had a conversation where even the academic that had insisted that x (something about calculating the electric field around a point charge) should be in the curriculum could not give us a reason for this decision. So, too much ‘stuff’ is common but the exact type of ‘stuff’ and why it’s ‘too much’ varies everywhere.

What about the learning environment, the teachers and the students? We were told by a professor at the University of Tezpur in India that the biggest problem facing Indian education was teachers in rural schools who did not turn up for work. But we met teachers who were working hours that would shame the most committed of professionals anywhere. The Philippine Ministry of Education told us that, by the age of 11, 60% of students were routinely absent. Our suggestion of more ‘small group work’ in classes with an average size of 90 seemed a little misplaced! A teacher in Kuching, Malaysia told me that the school day for his students was 7:00am to 5pm. He then explained that they would also do 2 to 3 hours homework and that in 5 years no-one had ever failed to hand it in on time. I could have shared an extensive catalogue of homework non-compliance over many years teaching in Leicestershire where the school day was substantially shorter. Whether homework is useful is another issue but clearly students are very different in different parts of the world!

Scandi noir and international work … the connection is clear? Absolut! It’s the subtitles. You’re exploring the nature of inquiry with teachers in Bangkok and notice that the look of weary resignation you normally see has been replaced by complete bafflement. No, this isn’t bad preparation, it’s because they don’t speak English – or rather that you don’t speak Thai. It can make for a difficult session – and when they are poking at their laptops during your presentation believe that they are updating their Facebook status not looking up the Thai for ‘constructivism’ in Google translate.

You need to get out more

So, overseas work? A nightmare! Everywhere is different. You cannot even speak the local language.

Yet, while we don’t always understand what’s going on in the rural schools of Maharashtra, the slums of Manila or the international schools of Brussels, sometimes that activity from Pontefract sings beautifully in Pattaya and Pune. And the people you are working with are committed, patient with your fumbling explanations and possessed of an inexhaustible wealth of smiles for ‘One more photo!’ as you’re escaping to the airport! It’s exhausting, frustrating, exciting and good fun.

More importantly, it is only when I step out of the comfort zone of my own culture that I see it for the first time. Perspective is the wonderful, and unexpected, gift.

So … get out more! Look for projects with a global dimension, move your teaching/research commitments (if you can!), hang out with people who still have Euros/dollars/ringitts/baht etc. from previous trips (they’re the first to hear of opportunities). You may need your passport before you get chance to have second thoughts! Expect irritations, passport dramas, terrifying power sockets (I’m not plugging my iPad into that!), welcoming hosts, happy educational accidents (wow! we do that as well!), interesting conversations, intellectual stimulation, good fun and a collection of receipts in a variety of languages.

You will learn at least as much as the people you work with.


Or your money back.

Gareth Price is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Development and Research in Education (CDARE) at Sheffield Institute of Education