This academic year, I’ve embarked on an MA in education. It’s been a while since I was involved in pure research and thinking, and it’s been a challenge and a joy to re-engage that part of my brain and think about some of these things critically. Over half-term, I completed my Literature Review, and I’ve been meaning to share where I am with my thinking around this for some time.
First, we know the impact that high-quality teaching has on the learning and outcomes of children and young people (Sutton Trust, 2011). Seminal studies of student achievement (Hattie, 2018, 2012) show that a number of factors including teacher professional development (+0.41) and teacher subject credibility (+0.9) lead to a collective teacher efficiency of (+1.57) – the largest impact on student achievement by a significant margin. Teacher quality is one of the components that we have direct control over (Cordingley et al., 2015; Scutt and Harrison, 2019; Weston and Clay, 2018), and therefore, educational systems invest heavily in continuing professional development.
My initial thinking is to explore the way this teacher development applies to the independent sector – which seems under-represented in analysis of education literature.
I started with some work looking at how teachers develop, and what we believe we know about teacher development as a conceptual exercise. The Kraft & Papay (2014) narrative of school context being critical started my thinking further: in theory, we should have great conditions for this in independent schools, but we don’t necessarily see them represented in the literature and in the discussion places. Although my review explored and developed some of my thinking on the frameworks (e.g. Desimone, 2006; Timperley et al., 2007; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Weston & Hindley, 2009) and their critiques (e.g. Kennedy, 2006; Sims & Fletcher-Wood, 2020), I don’t think that a lot of my thinking on this is particularly original, and is unlikely to end up making it in to the final piece. I spent more time on understanding this than I thought I would, but ultimately, I’m not sure it helps me particularly.
I feel like we have, however, developed a bit of a hegemony about how we do professional development in the UK. To an extent, I argue that this is associated with the structural focus on research in schools, and I was fascinated to think about some of the issues raised by Edovald & Nevil (2020) about the rise and development of the EEF, and some of the implications for leaders (Greany et al, 2018). A paper by Bernhard et al (2020) left me in a position to take away the idea that somehow, the higher stakes accountability of the UK education system encouraged an investment in research-informed education as a structural requirement, and a partial defence mechanism against the slings and arrows of outrageous external judgement. Like Malin et al. (2020), I think there’s an element of wanting to concentrate on the highest value for money levers to pull, and schools can generate their own accountability criteria through research. I accept there’s huge value in research and evidence-informed practice – and a huge grassroots engagement with this tells us that teachers do want to think about it themselves, but I think there are also structural reasons why it’s been encouraged by the DfE and leadership teams.
Independent schools, of course, don’t have the same structural issues. A lot of research – much of it linked to Professor Green, and a number of colleagues in economics departments (which surprised me!) – explores the longitudinal characteristics of their impacts on students post-education (Green et al., 2010; 2015; 2017; 2019), and even some of the mechanisms by which those impacts might be imparted. For example, there’s a number of studies looking at class size (Graddy & Stevens, 2003), or approaches (Henderson et al, 2020), and how that is part of parental decision making (Anders et al., 2020). Henderson et al. looked at university outcomes, and subject choices, and the impacts of schooling on post-education opportunities, and a lot of this is echoed in other countries. The only specifically academic focus is from Ndaji et al. (2016), in a study commissioned by the Independent Schools Council, and looking at CEM and primary data to explore academic achievement differences. While there are interesting conclusions to be drawn from all of these studies, a lot of them ultimately cannot differentiate between the background environmental co-variables (parent affluence, stability, demographics etc.) and the achievement of the school itself.
Little, therefore, seems to be known about what goes on inside independent schools, or how their teachers are operating and developed. Few schools – perhaps with some notable exceptions (Tony Little Centre for Education Research, for example) seem to make a big deal out of their work, and teaching and learning development – or talk and share their ideas publicly. Of course, I recognise and understand that they are a minority, and that they are a politically, economically and socially contentious concept. But, given that they account for some 1500 schools in the UK, and nearly 60 000 teachers and 10 000 teaching assistants, I find it strange that there is so much silence on trying to understand how they operate, and working out what they can learn from the state sector, or vice versa.
Ultimately, then, I posed four questions:
- Is teacher development just a slightly different pathway in the independent sector?
- Does the independent sector engage in similar processes (e.g. research, sharing), but just not talk about it?
- Inspired by the law of diffusion of innovation, I wondered whether independent schools are just not “crossing the chasm” of the mainstream approaches?
- Finally, I wonder if perhaps there are deliberate choices not to engage with the research, but to adopt a different philosophical and political stance as a strategic thinking exercise.
With a literature review just about done, my work is absolutely embryonic at this point, and I would very much welcome constructive dialogue and debate about any of the ideas I’ve raised here – particularly if there’s something critical I’ve overlooked. If anyone has some great examples that I have missed, I’d be delighted to talk to you further – messages via Twitter will always stimulate conversation – and I’m really keen to bounce ideas off people who might challenge and extend my thinking!
Looking forward to hearing from people about this! I have no idea how it will be marked, and it’s been thoroughly challenging as an exercise!