The Evidence Based Practice Revolution is coming to a School near You

In winding up its endowment, the Northern Rock Foundation wanted to see a legacy of benefit to the North East. One of the objectives identified was improving literacy in primary and closing the attainment gap seen for disadvantaged children. For the North East, the big issue is the amount of disadvantage, with 39% of all children eligible for free school meals, much greater than the national average. So the attainment gap is depressing the life chances of a large swathe of the region’s children.

Asking the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to disburse £10M to improve literacy is a recognition of a shift in the landscape of education. A revolution is a misnomer for its connotations of turmoil when so many schools are enthusiastic, using their toolkit and participating in trials. The EEF synthesises and presents evidence about what works to improve education outcomes and also funds trials of new interventions which need testing to prove their effectiveness. They will be doing both in the North East, with the presentation of evidence being mediated by a network of “advocates” – people who help to introduce the best evidence based practice into schools.

On 9th February, one of two regional information events on the advocacy campaign was held at Newcastle University. Attending were representatives from Teaching School Alliances, universities, local charities such as Seven Stories, and national organisations such as Teach First and national literacy charities. Mr René Koglbauer, Acting Head of School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences was delighted that the school could host this information event as “it will bring new opportunities to the region. Through the EEF advocacy projects existing partnerships can be strengthened and new partnerships will be formed in order to maximise the impact of the funding available across the North East region!”

Advocacy for evidence of literacy interventions is not about telling individual schools and teachers what to do. Indeed the advocacy strand of this campaign is an acknowledgement that seeing evidence utilised in practice is more complex than producing it and advertising to the relevant people. There is not a list of magic bullets in education and what each school needs is responses which are effective for their children. And supporting decision making that is sensitive to context, empowering teachers rather than requiring compliance must be based on trust which is why the advocacy network is focused on existing collegial relations between schools and other partners in the region.

Of course, in funding advocacy for what works, the EEF has a mind to evaluating what works as advocacy, and they will be evaluating. They have already learned from another advocacy campaign in Yorkshire, promoting their guidance about the effective role of teaching assistants. Influence, passion and respect are prominent and a reflexive and developing understanding of the local context is implicit. But apart from appreciating the need to facilitate a cultural shift in engaging with evidence, it is not really clear how successful advocacy works.

The North East Campaign offers an opportunity to think more deeply and expansively about how advocacy works. Literacy is the core outcome at primary school, and the EEF have recognised this by planning guides to the evidence at three stages (early years, KS1 and KS2) rather than one overarching document: these guides or handbooks will be what will be used as the framework for the advocates. For older children writing will be much more significant but for younger children reading is the principal meaning of literacy. While phonics is established as instrumental in many interventions at KS1, the early years has more complex dependence on speech and language and even emotional development and executive function. Thus the three handbooks should offer an insight into the development of literacy skills in young children and a guide to how children fall behind and what practitioners can do about it.

The core outcome focus on educational attainment means that advocate will have to reach a greater diversity of actors within schools, at different levels of responsibility. The picture is complicated by early years provision (they mean ages 3-5) happening in various settings, only some of which are nurseries attached to schools. Individual teachers, literacy leads, governors, speech and language therapists and others will be involved, not just school leaders as may have been the case in the teaching assistants campaign. So there may be more opportunity to think creatively about reaching different groups at different levels and with different approaches to partnership and learning.

At the heart of this scheme is a challenge for the whole of the ‘what works’ agenda. Even when we know what works, it is not necessarily adopted, and we need to understand how this occurs. Teachers are professionals, and the context and progress of pupils can be hard to reconcile with evidence from trials in order to plan local intervention. However, even NICE has been criticised for preparing guidance which is too narrow and specialised for GPS to make use of it. Even getting research users from the same profession has not solved the problem of adoption, so perhaps advocacy offer a new hope.

Of course issues associated with evidence based practice are at the heart of the role of the speech and language therapist. Students study Research Methods in Practice, complete their dissertations in fourth year and go one to read about the best available evidence for an intervention before adopting it. We already have the What Works of Speech, Language and Communication Needs website with over 11,000 members world wide as well as other sources such as Speechbite in Australia and the ASHA website in the US. But in speech and language therapy decisions are usually made by individuals or by a relatively small number of people in a local service. It is true that SLTs may advocate for a specific approach but the EEF advocacy model is suggesting that not only schools but groups of schools perhaps in local authorities or in academy chains may adopt a specific intervention to promote reading and writing. What this means is that evidence and the way it should be interpreted should be at the forefront of discussions in schools across the region over the coming years and SLTs will be well placed to contribute to those discussions.

We don’t know what advocacy will look like in this campaign in the North East, partners have to apply currently, each committing to working with at least 50 schools. The idea being that all the region’s schools are reached in the five years of the campaign, with concentration on those in areas of high disadvantage. It may involve audit tools for school about their practice and engagement with evidence, and be deliberately reflective. The intention is that developing an evidence base will empower teachers rather than expecting them to comply with a ‘best practice’ model. It certainly is more about making the evidence fit the schools, rather than making the schools fit the evidence – a new kind of revolution. The premise of evidence of what works being used to enable better outcomes for things like literacy in primary is agreeable to all. But taking on the challenge of what works where: understanding the local context and the external validity of the evidence is going to another level. Watch this space – primary education in the North East has a great opportunity here.