Education Endowment Foundation

How evidence-based decision-making in education could help unlock the talent of young people

Kevan Collins
Sir Kevan Collins

EEF Chief Executive

Sir Kevan Collins talks about why the Education Endowment Foundation’s new partnership with BHP Billiton Foundation has the potential to have a huge impact on education outcomes across the world.

Leaving school with good literacy and numeracy skills – and the qualifications to show for it - are prerequisites for progressing into quality jobs, apprenticeships, and further education. Yet too many of our young people do not make the grade and, as a result, risk social and economic exclusion later in life.

These pupils disproportionately come from disadvantaged homes. In the UK, for example, last year, over half of those eligible for free school meals had not achieved the expected level in English and maths by age 16. Sadly, this pattern is not unique to the UK; we see similar attainment gaps between rich and poor pupils emerge in education systems across the globe.

This is not just a personal tragedy for the individual; it is a heart-breaking waste of talent on an international scale and a huge barrier to improving social mobility. Breaking this pervasive link between family background and educational attainment is crucial for developing a skilled workforce for the future so critical across industries, and a way of building strong communities. Ensuring all young people have access to a quality education is vital to meet the needs of a changing world.   

To break the link, we have to start early and make sure that all young people—regardless of background—have access to great teaching in primary and secondary school. This mission is at the core of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) work.

The EEF believes that the best way to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils is through better use of evidence: looking at what has - and has not - worked in the past can put us in a much better place to judge what is likely to work in the future. By giving this information to all teachers - regardless of where they teach and the type of school they teach in - we can make sure more young people have access to an education that could change their life.

But it can be difficult to know where to start. There are thousands of studies out there, most of which are presented in academic papers and journals. Teachers are inundated with information about programmes and training courses too, all of which make claims about impact. How can anyone know which findings are the most secure and reliable?

Before the EEF launched in 2011, most English classrooms were largely evidence-free zones. Fast-forward to 2018 and much has changed. Well over half of all English school leaders now report using the Teaching and Learning Toolkit – an accessible guide that summarises international evidence to indicate the best bets for improving classroom attainment. And over a third of all schools have taken part in an EEF-sponsored randomised controlled trial – the “gold standard” of experimental research – to test the impact of different programmes and teaching approaches.

When we first launched the toolkit the research indicated that, on average, Teaching Assistants were not having an impact on children’s learning outcomes. However, the evidence also showed that when teaching assistants are well-trained within structured settings with high-quality support, they can make a positive impact on the outcomes of disadvantaged children. Each year 380,000 teaching assistants are employed in England alone, at an annual cost of some £5 billion; so making sure they are used to maximum effect is critical.

As a result of this early finding in the toolkit, the EEF commissioned a number of robust evaluations of promising and innovative approaches to deploying teaching assistants.  These trials, involving thousands of schools across England, have shown a marked positive impact on pupil’s learning, typically adding around three to four additional months of academic progress, and creating a compelling case for action in schools.

Our new partnership with the BHP Billiton Foundation will enable us to take this approach and make it available to teachers across the world. Building on the EEF’s world-leading approach to evidence-based teaching and learning, we’ll support education systems worldwide to improve outcomes for their pupils – and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – through better use of evidence.

The EEF has already partnered with school systems in Latin America, Australia and Scotland. Today’s announcement is part of a global effort to scale up evidence from the national to the international, helping us to answer critical questions about the circumstances in which the evidence is applicable; about what is fundamental to the way humans learn and what is subject to the idiosyncrasies of language, culture and context.

It's a significant challenge and, not surprisingly, one that the teaching profession has shown itself to be more than up for.