Where next with education?

By Carole Willis, NFER Chief Executive

Monday 20 December 2021

This year we’ve been marking 75 years since NFER was established and exploring what the future might hold for education.

NFER was founded in 1946 - in the aftermath of the Second World War - with the aim of building a body of evidence that would transform education for children and young people.

While there have been huge changes in education over those 75 years – driven by a growing evidence base on the importance of education for individuals, society and the economy - there is still much to do.

Today, we are dealing with the consequences of the largest disruption to education in peace time. The aftermath of this crisis will be with us for many years and NFER has consistently called for a long term, properly funded approach to children’s recovery.

Our research has shone a light on the impact of missed time in school, the difficulties of teaching in socially distanced classrooms, the financial pressures facing schools, and the damage to children’s wellbeing and mental health. And we are exploring how best to help them recover, including through our evaluation of the National Tutoring Programme.

Against the backdrop of Covid, some long standing challenges remain:

  • How to address the “disadvantage gap” and other inequalities in the education system. Ten years after it was established, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has generated a step change in the amount and quality of research into the effectiveness of different teaching approaches, with a focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged children. However there is still a long way to go - in continuing to expand the evidence base and, importantly, ensuring it is used in practice. Policy makers across government also need to take a system wide approach if they really want to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.
  • Ensuring there are enough high quality teachers and school leaders to give children the best possible education. While the pandemic has provided a temporary reprieve for teacher supply challenges in the English system, the economy is recovering. Teaching needs to be an attractive career option and the government cannot let up on tackling workload and addressing teacher pay. Meanwhile researchers still crave the holy grail of robust measures of teaching quality which could help identify ways to strengthen the most important (school based) factor affecting children’s outcomes.
  • How to deliver an accountability system which best supports school improvement and minimises perverse incentives. Objective, robust assessments need to be at the heart of the system, but the data should be interpreted carefully. In addition, schools provide so much more for our children than an academic education. This needs to be better reflected in the accountability system.
  • How best to enable young people to transition through education and into employment. Giving young people the range of choices which reflect their skills and interests while ensuring every choice is a high quality one is of paramount importance. This is a very live debate as the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill makes its way through Parliament, but the implications will take many years to properly evaluate.
  • How to tackle education inequalities across the globe. The pandemic has brought this into sharp relief as the education of over 1.7 billion children across the world was heavily disrupted. But 258 million children were not attending school even before the pandemic. Those who are in school do not always make successful transitions to secondary school and there is an increased focus on improving the quality of education in lower income countries.

And new issues have emerged.

The world of work is changing – driven by technology, automation, climate change and demographics. Young people will need different skills in the future to succeed. We are exploring what those skills are likely to be in 2035 and how the education system and others can play a role in enabling young people to acquire them.

The role of technology in education has been accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Our research suggests schools are now making more use of technology beyond remote education and it has the potential to revolutionise the assessment landscape. A digital access strategy is needed to ensure that some schools and children are not left behind.

Across all of these areas, data is at a premium. Data to understand the progress different groups of schools, children and young people are making (through education and beyond);data to evaluate the effectiveness of different policy and practice initiatives; data to inform young people about the relative benefits of different qualification routes. There is a significant challenge ahead in ensuring privacy rights are protected, while also enabling researchers to access the information they need (including fully integrated data sets) to support decision makers with key insights and evidence.

I am proud to be the ninth chief executive of NFER, working with such a highly skilled, experienced and committed team - and with so many schools, colleges and partners across education. And I’m excited about the opportunities ahead as NFER continues to provide independent, impartial and high quality evidence to help address the issues I’ve set out in this blog. We will continue to help create the best opportunities and outcomes for all children and young people over the next 75 years.