Flat Earth News

How the government used and abused educational research

The Guardian, September 1999

The greatest dream of all good experts is to find a government who will listen and turn their research into reality. Some succeed. Peter Mortimore did. But the greatest frustration for any expert is to have found a government who finally listened - and ended up misunderstanding.

Twenty four years ago, Peter Mortimore abandoned a nine-year career as a school teacher to join a team of researchers who were about to embark on a special project for Professor Michael Rutter at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London. The goal which Mortimore and his colleagues set themselves was to try to identify the seeds of success in the classroom by spending four long years studying a dozen schools in London. They were to ignite one of the longest running theoretical disputes in the world of education.

In 1979, they published "Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children." It was a ground-breaking work. It challenged the conventional wisdom of the time by showing that although the social and economic background of pupils was a very powerful factor in deciding academic results, nevertheless it was not the whole story. Schools could make a difference, and they tried to identify the kinds of things which successful schools could do for their pupils to start to overcome their inherent social disadvantage.

This was important. There was no disguising the fact that state schools were in trouble. Numerous schools had been renamed ‘comprehensive' without any training for staff or change in their curriculum. Local education authorities allowed their schools to be accountable to just about no one. Headteachers could be as secretive as they pleased, concealing their results and disguising their problems, failing to heed criticism or complaint. There was widespread concern that some teaching methods were sloppy and ineffective and that ‘child centered' learning had reached a point of absurdity where teachers declined to mark their students' work for fear of appearing critical. Many schools appeared to have low expecations of their students, reflected in indifferent results. Now, finally, there was a chance to spread the best practice, to make schools more effective.

It took nearly ten years for the message to get through to the Department of Education. By that time, the research had been confirmed and refined repeatedly, in the United States as well as in Britain, and there was real excitement about a cluster of possibilities for school improvement - some involved different approaches to leadership and management, some to classroom technique. But, when they finally acted, Conservative ministers grabbed the wrong end of the stick and started beating teachers over the back with it. They fired off a volley of reforms - league tables, SATs tests, Ofsted inspections - all of which was aimed at the kind of School Effectiveness which Mortimore and his colleagues had identified and all of which utterly ignored the fact that the social and economic background of pupils remained a very powerful factor.

Mortimore and others tried to warn them. They explained that the most you could hope to achieve by improving schools was an increase of between eight and ten per cent in results. It was important and yet it was only a fraction of the whole. It was like watching a furious motorist pumping up the tyres on a car which had run out of petrol: it might eventually help the car to run more smoothly, but if he refused to address the real problem, it would do very little good and sooner or later, if he just carried on pumping regardless, something was bound to blow.

By now, Mortimore had become one of the leading experts on education in the country and had been appointed head of the Institute of Education at the University of London. In a book called Road to Improvement, he warned: "It is crucial that policy makers desist from claiming that school improvement - by itself and in the absence of extra resources - can solve all the problems. Whilst this might be true in ‘advantaged' schools, it is certainly not true in disadvantaged schools." Rather like the atom scientists who saw their work hijacked by government for immoral ends, he saw his warnings ignored.

The difficulty was that School Effectiveness was immensely attractive to politicians. By pinpointing the work of teachers and administrators, it completely absolved central government of all possible responsibility for failure. By sidelining the impact of intake, it permitted policies which focussed on detail in the school and were therefore relatively cheap, and which promised to deliver results quickly and were therefore electorally attractive. And so the Department for Education and Ofsted were already committed to hunting down failing schools and attributing their failure entirely to the weakness of teachers and managers, ignoring the destructive impact of an intake which had become progressively more delinquent as the new poverty swept through the country. The government's supporters were determined to recognise part of the truth and nothing but that part of the truth. Conservative columnists savaged Mortimore's book, effectively accusing him of not understanding his own research.

Ofsted and education ministers justified themselves by pointing to the performance of a group of schools with a disadvantaged intake, who appeared to have succeeded against the odds. The National Commission on Education organised studies of eleven such schools and found there was real evidence that, despite their intake, these schools had succeeded, using a combination of strong leadership, the setting of clear targets, and the involvement of parents and staff and community. And yet this study warned, first that none of the eleven schools saw government policy as helpful; and secondly that "the nature of school improvement.. has yet to be thoroughly understood and measured in a sensible and sensitive way." Researchers expressed real doubt about whether such schools would succeed in the long term, once the special effort of rescuing them subsided; and whether, in any event, there was any prospect of schools generally achieving these exceptional results; and, finally, whether some of those who were being credited with success against the odds had not simply attracted an easier intake of children.

One of those who took part in the eleven studies and who celebrated the achievement of these schools was Professor Peter Mortimore. However, this support for his early work only left him struggling all the harder to persuade the government to understand the rest of the story: "Whilst some schools can succeed against the odds, the possibility of them all doing so, year in and year out, still appears remote, given that the long-term patterning of educational inequality has been strikingly consistent throughout the history of public education in most countries.... We must be aware of the dangers of basing a national strategy for change on the efforts of outstanding individuals working in exceptional circumstances." None of which has stopped the government pursuing precisely such a strategy.

Additional Research by Helene Mulholland

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