Mark Henderson

Back to Basics?

The Telegraph

There is much debate about education in the United Kingdom, some are now suggesting a return to the basics and treating education policy in the same way we treat health policy. Unfortunate our teacher unions think they are the sole arbiter of anything remotely connected with education. Perhaps there is some merit in returning to the “old ways”, they at least were tried and tested:

…we can all admit that education in this country can be improved. The question is: how?

Going “back to basics” might be the answer, of course. Perhaps rote learning of times tables, tried and tested for generations, is the best way to make children fluent in the use of number. But that is a hypothesis; an empirical, testable claim, and we should do our best to test that claim.

In his important new book The Geek Manifesto, The Times’s former science editor Mark Henderson argues that we should hold education policy to the same stringent standards as we do health. “It is understood and accepted by British politicians of all parties that providing universal access to first-class medical care and providing excellent state schools that offer opportunity to all are among the core functions of government,” he says. “Yet when it comes to evidence, these two central policy concerns are held to entirely different standards.”

New drugs, and new healthcare interventions in general (let’s leave aside NHS reforms for the moment), are tested rigorously using the best available methods, usually a randomised controlled trial (RCT). By contrast education policy is haphazardly built, based on little or no good evidence, constructed from half-remembered traditions, ossified dogma and evanescent fads.

Henderson points to the use of “phonics”, a novel method of teaching literacy, as a point where a large change was brought in on the basis of little evidence – and, worse, an opportunity to glean that evidence was squandered. Early excitement led to it being brought in widely across the country, when it should have been rolled out gradually in randomly allocated educational authorities. Then it would be possible to compare the literacy levels between areas, and see whether there really is a benefit to phonics. Instead, it got brought in wholesale, and we know nothing more than we did before about what actually works.