Do private schools give students an educational advantage?

Researchers at the Institute of Education at University College London have conducted a study that looks at whether there are any educational advantages to attending private schools in the upper secondary years (Years 12 and 13).

Published in the Oxford Review of Education, the study used data from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies’ Next Steps cohort study and linked this to national pupil achievement information between 2005 and 2009. The researchers followed a sample of 5,852 pupils who attended a private or state school while doing their A-levels.

The profiles of the two groups of pupils were very different – pupils arrived in private school sixth forms with significantly higher prior attainment in GCSEs, and from households that had twice the income of families whose children attended state school sixth form. However, the researchers used the data available from Next Steps to allow for socio-demographic characteristics and prior achievement. Allowing for these characteristics, pupils at private schools outperformed those at state schools in their total A-level score by eight percentile points. Private school pupils also performed better on those subjects deemed to be more important to elite universities.

The researchers suggest that the reason for the difference may lie in the vastly superior resources per pupil in private schools (three times the state school average), including smaller pupil-teacher ratios (roughly half the state school average). However, they caution that their results are not truly causal.

Source: Private schooling, subject choice, upper secondary attainment and progression to university (November 2019), Oxford Review of Education

Equipping students for an automated world

New research from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), in partnership with Nesta, suggests that complex human traits like problem-solving and social skills will be the most sought-after in the future workplace, as these are the hardest to replicate in an automated world.

Rose Luckin and colleagues argue that giving children well-structured problems to solve together (collaborative problem solving), is an essential skill to learn in order to prepare them for the workplace of the future, and also reinforces knowledge and improves attainment. However, despite this, collaborative problem solving is rarely taught in schools. The report, Solved! Making the case for collaborative problem solving, suggests that the current education system is stifling such skills because it remains focused on memory and knowledge tasks, due mainly to the preference for individual assessment, concerns over behaviour management, and lack of training for teachers. It calls for policymakers, educators, and innovators to adapt to equip young people with the skills needed for the future and includes recommendations on how the education system can incorporate collaborative problem solving.

Source: Solved! Making the case for collaborative problem solving (March 2017), Nesta

Out-of-school time study programmes improve results for poorer students

A project funded by the Nuffield Foundation looked at the effect of out-of-school-time (OST) study programmes on GCSE performance in England.

Using data from the Next Steps longitudinal study of young people, Francis Green and Nicola Pensiero from the Institute of Education recorded the results of those who undertook their GCSEs in 2006. They found that teacher-led OST study groups were moderately effective in improving overall GCSE performance, particularly for children from disadvantaged and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. For children whose parents were unemployed or in routine occupations, an improvement equivalent to approximately two grades was shown on their overall GCSE score.

While OST study programmes are available to children from all backgrounds in the vast majority of secondary schools in the UK, the research showed that 42% of children whose parents are unemployed take part compared to 46% of children from a professional background.

The research found no statistical benefit from programmes that were self-directed by students.

Source: Are out-of-school-time (OST) study programmes an effective way to improve the academic performance of socially disadvantaged children? (2016), UCL Institute of Education

What does the research say about learning styles?

A recent blogpost on the Deans for Impact website looks at the research evidence behind learning styles.

Dr Dylan Wiliam from UCL IoE writes that within education, the idea that students will learn more if they receive instruction that specifically matches their learning is of particular interest. However, a 2008 review of learning styles found that “If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” Of three robust studies, one gave partial support, while two clearly contradicted it.

Dr Wiliam argues that the whole premise of learning-styles research – that the purpose of instructional design is to make learning easy – may be incorrect. “If students do not have to work hard to make sense of what they are learning, then they are less likely to remember it in six weeks’ time.”

Teachers need to know about learning styles to avoid the trap of teaching in the style they believe works best for them. “As long as teachers are varying their teaching style, then it is likely that all students will get some experience of being in their comfort zone and some experience of being pushed beyond it.”

Source: Learning styles: what does the research say? (2016), Deans for Impact.

What works to increase research use?

A new systematic review from the EPPI-Centre at the Institute of Education looks at what works to increase research use by decision-makers. The review included 23 reviews whose relevance and methodological quality were judged appropriate.

There was reliable evidence that the following were effective:

  • Interventions facilitating access to research evidence, for example, through communications strategies and evidence repositories, conditional on the intervention design simultaneously trying to enhance decision-makers’ opportunity and motivation to use evidence.
  • Interventions building decision-makers’ skills to access and make sense of evidence (such as critical appraisal training programmes) conditional on the intervention design simultaneously trying to enhance both capability and motivation to use research evidence.

There was limited evidence that interventions that foster changes to decision-making structures and processes by formalising and embedding one or more of the other mechanisms of change within existing structures and processes (such as evidence-on-demand services integrating push, user-pull, and exchange approaches) enhance evidence use.

There is reliable evidence that some intense and complex interventions lead to an increase in evidence use. Overall though, simpler and more defined interventions appear to have a better likelihood of success.

Source: The Science of Using Science: Researching the Use of Research Evidence in Decision-Making (2016) EPPI-Centre

Free schools don’t reflect local demographics

A research briefing from the Institute of Education says that free schools (non-profit-making, independent, state-funded schools introduced by the current government) are socially selective, failing to serve the neediest children in their areas.

The authors used data from the National Pupil Database for 2011/12, 2012/13, and 2013/14. For each type of school, they looked at the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), ethnicity, and the prior achievement of pupils.

They found that free schools have emerged in slightly more disadvantaged areas, as indicated by the proportion of FSM pupils in the neighbourhood compared to the rest of England: 22% compared with 17% at secondary level, and 18% compared with 16% at primary level. However, they are taking fewer FSM pupils than other local schools.

The study also showed that children who enter primary free schools are academically ahead of their peers. They have significantly higher levels of attainment than the average, not only for their neighbourhoods, but for the country as a whole. Prior achievement for pupils entering secondary free schools is the same as for pupils entering other local schools.

The other main finding was that free schools have emerged most strongly in neighbourhoods with high proportions of non-white children, compared with the national average, and that within those neighbourhoods they have admitted even higher proportions of non-whites. This may be a result of free schools with a declared religious affiliation.

Source: Research Briefing Summary: The Social Composition of Free Schools after Three Years (2014), Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES).