100 years of Randomised Controlled Trials: a teacher’s perspective

By Matthew Courtney

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Like many other teachers and middle leaders currently working in schools, I have a keen interest in using and applying educational research in the classroom. The trend for practitioners who are interested in research has been described by Nelson and Sharples, as a “recent surge in teacher demand for evidence”, demonstrated by the popularity of grass-roots initiatives such as ResearchEd and initiatives such as the Chartered College of Teaching and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

With a high workload and time pressures, it is useful, as a teacher, to know which evidence will be most impactful on my practice and how best to engage with this evidence. With recent discourse around educational research centering on the use of randomised control trials (RCTs), I was keen to explore their value to teachers and school leaders…

The popularity of RCTs in Education

On Monday 23 September, the Royal Statistical Society and NFER marked the centenary of the first recorded RCT in education by hosting a seminar packed with prolific speakers and panelists in the field of RCTs in education. It was great to be at the event to celebrate the occasion. In her welcome address, Carole Willis, Chief Executive of NFER, acknowledged the status of RCTs as the ‘gold standard’ of educational research. The expert speakers went on to discuss the history and impact they have had within the field. Professor Carol Torgerson, Professor of Education at Durham University, commented that even though RCTs in the general sense are more commonly associated with medicine, they were used in education research decades prior to their use in health research. She went on to discuss the resurgence in popularity that education RCTs have enjoyed in the last 20 years. Camilla Nevill (pictured), Head of Evaluation at EEF, reaffirmed the popularity of RCTs commenting that since EEF was established in 2011, it has commissioned 155 RCTs, involving over half of the schools in England and over 1 million students. She supported the notion of RCTs being the gold standard in education commenting that they are the optimal approach for saying, on average, what works in education.

During his talk, Alex Quigley, National Content Manager at EEF, drew upon his recent experience as a school leader to provide useful commentary on the value and use of RCTs for school leaders and those working in the classroom. He discussed the realities of school leaders having to face ‘either/or’ decisions when implementing an intervention, commenting on the cost/benefit analysis required of school leaders due to limited time, money and resources. Alex made reference to counterfactual decisions in education where vast amounts of money has been spent on interventions with little or no evidence based behind them.

What can schools do?

As a former teacher, he supported the role of RCTs to challenge our own intuitions and preconceptions about what works in education. RCTs enable school leaders and teachers to make best bets on what has been shown to work in some contexts. Alex warned that RCTs, in themselves, do not provide answers but that they provide those working within schools and colleges with nudges and inferences.

He made the case for school leaders to dig deeper into RCTs, highlighting the value of process evaluations to inform decision making within educational settings. Similarly, Professor Paul Connolly, Professor of Education at Queen’s University Belfast, refuted critics of RCTs that claim that these trails are too oversimplified to be used within education and other social sciences by emphasising the importance of process evaluations within RCT to provide context. 

Alex Quigley posed a call to action for school leaders to “look at the why as well as the what” when considering implementing interventions based on evidence from RCTs. He encouraged school leaders to “grapple with RCTs” a useful phrase which warns against practitioners simply taking this form of evidence at face-value. He encouraged schools to consider the support factors required to implement an intervention successfully, including training required, money and resources needed amongst other factors. Alex celebrated the role of RCTs in supporting school leaders to make best bets but, as ever in education, context is king. Throughout his talk Alex summarised the benefits of using RCTs to inform decisions but encouraged their use as “part of a rich evidence picture”.

It was fantastic to hear the speakers discussing the history and impact of RCTs in Education. I was particularly struck by the vast number of schools in England who have already participated in randomised trials. A real takeaway for me, was Alex Quigley’s invitation to dig deeper behind RCTs when using them to decide to implement interventions in schools. I feel that now to effectively engage with education research, as a teacher and middle leader, I will be critically engaging with both the evidence of RCTs and the process evaluations to assess what is likely to work best in my context.

Matthew Courtney is a teacher and blogger. He tweets at @mattheweduk. For more from NFER Classroom, head over to the NFER Assessment Hub where you'll find a host of free guidance and resources. You can also sign up to our monthly NFER Direct for Schools newsletter for exclusive research and assessment related content delivered direct to your inbox.