Better funding will only come with a better evidence base

12 Jun 2021, 5:00

Looking past our disappointment at the Treasury’s funding of the recovery package, it’s easy to see why the DfE failed to secure more money for interventions, writes Ian Rowe

The £1.4 billion offered by the government to help children catch up on their education after the pandemic was largely condemned as insufficient. The former recovery tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, clearly agreed that the proposal, amounting to £22 per child in the average primary school, was inadequate as he resigned over it.

It seems unlikely that schools will receive the £15 billion package Sir Kevan reportedly recommended.  There are murmurings that the Treasury picked apart his proposals line by line, questioning their effectiveness and cost.

Though the Treasury could have loosened the purse strings, seeking value for money by asking that initiatives have proven benefits is sound.  Organisations undertaking educational research, such as the Education Endowment Foundation and the Sutton Trust, do admirable work, but as charities their focus is rightly on helping the most disadvantaged and on social mobility.

What we need is a centralised approach to examining how successful teaching methods are.  The scientific systems of evidence gathering used in the pharmaceutical industry must be adopted in educational research to ensure that money schools receive is spent shrewdly.

When I completed a pharmacology degree, I didn’t imagine myself working in education technology. Edtech wasn’t a flourishing industry in the 1980s! I started my career working for pharmaceutical companies observing the way drugs are developed, tested and trialled.  Drug regulation is time consuming, and a rich and sturdy evidence base is collected before a treatment gets near a patient.

This process is laborious to prove that medicines are safe. However, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also investigates how cost effective treatments are when deciding whether to allow it on the NHS.

Where there is vast demand and scarce resources, difficult decisions will arise

This sounds heartless, but where there is vast demand and scarce resources, difficult decisions will arise. NICE analyses the benefit of a treatment based on how many quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), or years in perfect health, it provides. This means that even if a treatment is effective, if it is costly and its benefits marginal, then NICE may reject it.

We should transfer this approach of evidence gathering and economic scrutiny into our education provision. The pandemic has left children stressed about their lost learning and the government is not providing a large sum to help them. Therefore, it is imperative that any funding is spent on educational initiatives that provide the most value. But without a robust evidence base, how can we possibly know what those are?

The edtech sector has always had to prove its efficacy. We provide a product, and schools like to know that we deliver results before they invest in us. This means we are at the forefront of analysing how children learn and how to help them retain information.

GCSEPod, for example, is a founding member of the EdTech Evidence Group. The group’s core function is to help schools assess the impact of edtech in the classroom through evidence gathering and analysis. Integrating technology into assessment simplifies this process, allowing for data to be collected and arranged, ready for interpretation, at the click of a button.

A stringent methodology needs to be adopted in analysing the impact of more traditional and less conventional teaching methods so we can start to understand what works for students. Whether it’s working out sums on a blackboard, handcrafting something or engaging with content on a smartphone, we need to do more research on what the most effective teaching methods are.

There are some practical difficulties when it comes to proving where impact on educational progress comes from but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Clearly, the controlled situations in which clinical trials are conducted cannot be replicated in schools.

However, in the absence of a substantial funding U-turn by the government, we must create a system by which the success of educational approaches can be better measured. Only then can we ensure that the money the DfE does secure is spent as rewardingly as possible.

And more to the point, only with that kind of evidence can the DfE ever hope to secure more of it.

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