Tackling disadvantage (II): teachers

14 November 2016

Emotions run high when it comes to the form and quality of compulsory education. The recent return of the debate on grammar schools attests strongly to this, as did the reaction to previous intentions of the Government to convert all schools to academies. However, to deal with the most pressing concerns for schools – including attainment gaps and funding cuts – the focus may need to be diverted to the recruitment and training of teachers.

Particular attention in the public debate is paid to the stark outcome disparities between children from different backgrounds. This is not without reason. In 2015 the proportion of disadvantaged pupils receiving an average of C or above in English and maths at GCSE was 42.6 per cent compared to 70.1 per cent of all other pupils. Furthermore, geographic areas appeared to predict pupil outcomes more strongly for 11-year-olds born in 2000 than those born in 1970.

While there certainly is a wealth of evidence to suggest that grammar schools have not improved social mobility, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on admissions policies or indeed the structure of school governance. To do so would be to miss out on the aspect of education which, not only accounts for the largest part of schools’ spending, but also has an enormous impact on pupil outcomes and wellbeing: teachers.

Given its significant impact on performance, and the serious challenges faced in closing the attainment gap, it is important that the best teachers are deployed to teach the most disadvantaged children. And while a programme like Teach First does exactly that by placing high-attaining graduates into disadvantaged schools, the IFS estimates that for a secondary school in London, the cost of employing a Teach First trainee is almost twice as expensive as employing any other teacher trainee. Given the cuts to funding that schools are facing over this Parliament, and the insecurity sparked by the implementation of the new funding formula, especially in London schools, this may not be a viable option for many.

However, this does not mean that schools can’t target their recruitment and training efforts to reduce attainment gaps. Schemes like Teach First focus on recruiting relatively high achievers and working towards a formal qualification, for which there is no clear-cut evidence. Instead, a teacher’s job satisfaction and the teaching methods they apply correlate more strongly with successful teaching than their experience.

A large-scale American study found that teachers were significantly more likely to be satisfied with their jobs if they felt that the administration of the school was supportive. A London school boasting to be ‘the happiest on earth’ found that, as bureaucratic burdens went down and autonomy went up, both job satisfaction and pupil attainment went up with it.

For the teaching methods raising attainment most effectively, schools could make better use of an initiative like the Education Endowment Foundation’s toolkit, which outlines the strength of evidence alongside the level of effectiveness of different interventions.

It is also worth pointing to recent research which establishes that teachers with the same minority ethnic backgrounds as their students have higher expectations of their performance than white teachers. Specifically, a long-term study looked at the expectations of the future of black and white pupils in the US, and discovered that while black teachers overestimated the proportion of black pupils progressing to college, this had a positive impact on how many ended up doing so. This is relevant to teacher deployment in the UK, as children with a black Caribbean heritage still perform lower than any other ethnic group.

Taken together, the evidence discourages an overemphasis on formal teacher qualifications. This promises well for the flexibility granted to academies to hire teachers regardless of their background. It also suggests that a restructuring of funds at schools with large numbers of disadvantaged pupils, away from spending on the most expensive teacher trainees, to investing in increasing job satisfaction and spreading awareness of the most effective teaching interventions, would be wise to consider in the current funding climate.

Emilie Sundorph, Researcher, Reform

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