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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Lies, damned lies and educational research. Tread warily

Chris McGovern: Lies, damned lies and educational research. Tread warily


Tens of millions of pounds is spent each year from the public purse on educational research. Some of this research is worthwhile but much of it can be more damaging than helpful. The promotion of failed teaching methodologies in schools, such as so-called ‘child-centred’ learning, the disastrous ‘real books’ approach to teaching reading and the relegation of knowledge in favour of fake ‘skills’, is underpinned by such research. Indeed, the entire edifice of our current education system, even the crazy world of hyper-grade inflation in public examinations, has been built on it.

Now, a new piece of such research has hit the headlines. It comes from the Department for Education’s “Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE)” and is entitled, “Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16”. It states that its research “was designed to answer questions relevant to policy.” More or less, though, this is government research to justify government policy.

Many of its conclusions are common sense. Should we be spending public funds for such insights as these?

  • “Students who had attended a more academically effective primary school for maths went on to gain better GCSE maths grades”
  •   “Attending a higher quality secondary school … predicted better GCSE English”
  • “Students who spent more time on homework during Year 9 were almost 10 times more likely to achieve 5 A*-C … than those who did less homework.
  • “All [children] were influenced the most between 3 and 16 years by their families.”
  • “The benefits of good teaching and good schools were found in each key stage.”
  • “Students’ examination attainment is strongly influenced by the education level of their parents.”

This EPPSE project began in 1997, at a time when around £70m was being spent annually on educational research. Was such high expenditure worthwhile? The following year Ofsted commissioned a study to find out. This study recognisedthat some educational research was of high intellectual quality but that much was “partisan in nature” raising “severe doubts about methodology” and was “of dubious value”.

By stating the obvious, at the expense of the public purse, the latest EPPSE report may feel that it has avoided the possibility of bringing educational research into further disrepute. If so, it has not been entirely successful.

One of its conclusions is that, “Attending a pre-school, compared to none, predicted higher total GCSE score”. Now, this may feel very comforting for those parents who deposit their one-year old with the local nursery for up to 12 hours each weekday. Indeed, ‘The Sunday Times” headlined its coverage by proclaiming, “The nursery kids are all right”. It even went so far as to state that, “far from feeling guilty”, these parents “should be slapping themselves on the back for choosing daycare for their children over a child minder or even staying at home to look after them themselves.”

In fact, the report’s conclusion in this area is an irrelevance. It is based on the situation in the mid 1990s when universal free pre-schooling was not available. However, these days, most stay-at-home mums/dads are able to take advantage of this free provision for their children. Their infants have the best of both worlds. The EPPSE report compares only those pupils who did not have any pre-schooling with those who did. How different things are now! 12 years in the future, I suspect that we will see the best results being achieved by those infants who had pre-schooling plus parental time. Often, as a head teacher, I had to remind ‘well-off’ working parents that their financial resources were able to buy everything their young child needed except for the one thing that mattered most, the one thing that they could not purchase – time!

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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