Great expectations

By Carole Willis

Monday 16 December 2013

This is a double first for me… My first blog post, and my first post as a Chief Executive.

I formally took over from the highly respected Sue Rossiter as Chief Executive at NFER over the weekend. As I wrapped my Christmas presents on Saturday morning, I wondered whether the phone would be ringing constantly with calls from concerned parents wanting to know why Britain’s performance in PISA hadn’t improved; and from headteachers wanting to know how we can reduce the proportion of children leaving primary school without having reached the expected level in reading, writing and maths. I did have a call from an engineer about my Wi-Fi connection, but none from engineering firms wanting to know how to encourage more girls to take A-level physics.

These are all-important questions and ones that NFER can help address through our research and data analysis, building on our strong links with schools. As in previous rounds, NFER was the national research centre for PISA 2012 in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, adapting and administering the tests, collecting and analysing the data and producing country reports.

Whilst no international test measure can ever produce a perfect assessment of children’s knowledge and ability – not least because the current tests are all based on samples of children in each country – PISA flags up the countries and the issues we need to explore in more depth, to see what we can learn from elsewhere, and then test out what might work here. For example, compared to England, why does Shanghai have 10 times the proportion of 15 year olds achieving the highest levels in mathematics in PISA, and only a tenth of the proportion achieving at the lowest levels?

There is a very welcome focus from the Government at present on ‘what works’ in helping improve the delivery of public services. NFER is working alongside organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to summarise the existing evidence, identify the gaps, and fill them with new trials, new evaluations, and tests of new initiatives. I was excited to be part of this growing emphasis on evidence whilst I was at the Department for Education (DfE), and even more excited to be helping deliver some of the answers at NFER.

But even where we know ‘what works’, this isn’t always disseminated or used by practitioners. Research for the Sutton Trust, using NFER’s Teacher Voice survey, indicates that some schools are using pupil premium funds on things that the evidence suggests are not particularly cost effective. Julie Nelson, one of the team here at NFER, has been exploring the research on how to spread best practice and ensure it is applied. She has found that the evidence on ‘what works’ in transferring evidence on ‘what works’ is surprisingly scant.

In his report for the DfE’s analytical review earlier this year Ben Goldacre highlights the importance of establishing a supporting ‘architecture’ to facilitate the production, dissemination and, most importantly, the use of robust research to improve classroom practice. NFER already provides many elements of this ‘architecture’ – from our Enquiring Schools programme, and our emerging database of research questions generated by practitioners, through to our expertise in conducting trials and robust evaluations. We need to bring all this together in a way which enables sound evidence to have a real impact on the lives of learners, working alongside practitioners, policy makers and other research organisations.

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, highlighted last week by Sir Michael Wilshaw as one of the lowest performing Local Authorities in the country (only 44.5 per cent of its children achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths in 2012, compared to a national average of 59 per cent). But my inspiring teachers – and the encouragement and expectations set by my parents – gave me choices and opportunities that many of my peers didn’t have. I want to use my time at NFER to help every child achieve their potential.