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A research-informed approach is increasingly critical to helping students thrive

How can a research-informed programme like English Mastery support student attainment and teacher workload?

How can a research-informed programme like English Mastery support student attainment and teacher workload?


English Mastery are currently recruiting schools to participate in a research trial to evaluate the impact of a knowledge-rich curriculum on students’ attainment and on teacher workload. Ofsted’s recent curriculum research review in English places a prominent emphasis on the role of knowledge in the subject, so what does that mean in practice for a programme like English Mastery?

The curriculum in English

Over the past few years, the education sector has become increasingly engaged with the principles of education research and cognitive science – ‘cogsci’. This increased commitment to finding out what works in classrooms will allow teachers and school leaders to make increasingly informed decisions about how best to support students to make great progress and to fully enjoy the subjects they study at school. As we see confirmation of the impact of the disruptions to students’ education over the past few years, adopting a research-informed approach becomes increasingly critical to support students to thrive during the precious time they spend at school.

For English teachers, Ofsted’s recent curriculum Research Review arrives at a timely moment. As we move through exam season and schools begin to look a bit further ahead than the next few days – or hours, in some instances – and revisit their longer-term curriculum plans, this document affords some interesting commentary on the ways in which schools can structure their English curriculums to maximise the opportunities students have to make great progress.

A knowledge-rich approach

At English Mastery, and across Ark Schools, we are proud to place powerful knowledge front and centre in our curriculum design. We have been encouraged by the prominent role knowledge plays in Ofsted’s Research Review:

Knowledge of language, which includes linguistic knowledge like vocabulary and grammar, as well as knowledge of the world for comprehension, underpins progression in spoken language, reading and writing. (Ofsted English Curriculum Research Review)

For a long time, we’ve seen this approach lead to great outcomes for students, and also make lessons more enjoyable and engaging. In 2019, we began a research trial to put this confidence to the test. Unfortunately, disruptions to education across 2020–21 meant that we were unable to measure the outcomes for students, but we received compelling qualitative data from teachers that support this approach, and which shows how supportive and empowering a resourced curriculum can be.

We’re delighted to be working with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) again to evaluate English Mastery, and the impact a resourced curriculum and training programme has on teachers’ practice and workload. We’re recruiting schools to participate in a randomised controlled trial starting in September 2022, and cannot wait to show that a knowledge-rich approach to curriculum in English not only supports better outcomes for students, but also facilitates a joyful study of the subject, and empowers teachers to become even more successful in the classroom.

Developing skilful students

The findings of the 2019 report show that this is exactly the case. There are some reassuring findings in there which highlight that foregrounding knowledge develops many skills in English, including more precise analysis, but also more confident and articulate students. One teacher drew particular attention to the impact this approach had on oracy in the Evaluation Report:

There are segments where students are encouraged to share their answers with staff or students, so there’s a real confidence boost in their student oracy and their ability to dictate their thoughts. (Teacher comment, EEF English Mastery Evaluation Report)

It’s worth highlighting this outcome of our approach at English Mastery, as it goes a long way to show that a deep understanding of a subject – its history, context, even a secure comprehension – unlocks students’ ability to think and talk dynamically about it. Take an example from our unit on ‘Oliver Twist’. Learning about, say, Charles Dickens’s early life, the fact his father was sent to a debtor’s prison, and the Poor Law of 1834 doesn’t lead to a Grandgrind-ian recitation of ‘nothing but facts’, but instead allows students to explore the deeper purpose and morals of the novel. Should we feel nothing but hatred and scorn for Bill Sikes, or does Dickens use him to symbolise the dangers of criminalising the poor? Empowering students with this knowledge allows them to engage with these rich, complex ideas with greater nuance and depth.

Empowering teachers

English Mastery also empowers teachers to make more informed decisions about their practice at all levels – from formative assessment opportunities to having greater ownership of the curriculum model in a department. That’s one of the main draws of a resourced curriculum: it can help shift planning from a resourcing activity (‘I need to get next week’s lesson plans on our shared drive for SLT’) to a more thoughtful, focussed process (‘How can I ensure students don’t misunderstand this challenging passage?’). Our planning guidance, anytime-access professional development and bespoke school support helps English departments to take our curriculum materials and critically engage with how they should be adapted and innovated to best meet the needs of their students. Christine Counsell comments that, ‘Curricula will be strong in intent and implementation where teachers have a dynamic relationship to the knowledge that they teach’, and we support schools to foster this dynamic relationship. Again, this was highlighted in our 2019 EEF report, with a teacher commenting,

What we are able to now do is think about how we deliver those resources. I think that’s something that is quite empowering. The ability to be able to think about it as a teacher … is very liberating, and actually, a far better use of a teacher’s time. (Teacher comment, EEF English Mastery Evaluation Report)

Communities of practice

We have a close working partnership with the school leaders, subject leaders and teachers across English Mastery, and work hard to understand their contexts and priorities. With a partnership of over 200 schools, it means that we’ve got a wealth of experience to draw on. Whatever challenges a department is facing, however teachers are working to implement the curriculum in their school, we have a thriving community of practitioners to draw upon, and share experiences and expertise with. Put like this, it is no surprise to see that this common approach to curriculum, with teachers from across the country reflecting, supporting, and improving the implementation of the curriculum, can lead to a greater sense of community and collaboration within a school:

Teachers who described the wellbeing of their English department as low prior to implementing English Mastery, noted how the programme had brought teachers together and increased feelings of solidarity. These teachers thought that co-planning practices, plus the fully resourced, standardised curriculum helped prevent teacher silos and low levels of mutual support. (EEF English Mastery Evaluation Report)

Evolving approaches to English pedagogy

We’ve believed in and witnessed the benefits of a complete curriculum programme like English Mastery since we launched eight years ago. The findings from the EEF’s independent qualitative evaluation from 2019 lend huge credibility to this approach.

The outcomes of a programme like English Mastery can be as broad as they are deep: empowered teachers, dynamic communities of practitioners, and engaged, joyous English classrooms where every student thrives.

Join our research trial

We’re recruiting schools to participate in a new randomised controlled trial of the English Mastery programme, starting in September 2022. If you are interested in seeing how such an approach may support your department, and if you are interested in contributing to the national conversations around curriculum and pedagogy, visit our website to find out more and book a call to talk to one of our team.

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One comment

  1. Charles Dickens

    ‘Over the past few years, the education sector has become increasingly engaged with the principles of education research and cognitive science – ‘cogsci’. This increased commitment to finding out what works in classrooms will allow teachers and school leaders to make increasingly informed decisions about how best to support students to make great progress and to fully enjoy the subjects they study at school’

    – ‘Cogsci’ doesn’t tell you what works in classrooms. That would be ‘applied cogsci’. Either way, show me the research that shows that applied cognitive science works in English… Feel free to have a read of the EEF review of the literature and you’ll find there is none.