Learning loss: the National Tutoring Programme for England is a valuable step – but may not go far enough

Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics, University of Bristol
Hans Sievertsen, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Bristol

UNESCO estimates that around 1.5 billion children were unable to attend school in the spring of 2020. Closed schools mean lost learning, lower skills and reduced life chances and wellbeing.

A strategy for closing this learning gap needs to be rapid, school-based rather than online, and provided in addition to regular school. Given the size of the learning gap, it requires significant investment. Most importantly, there must be evidence of its effectiveness.

The policy that best fits these criteria is small-group tutoring, based in schools. This is the focus of the UK government’s new flagship catch-up programme, available to state schools in England.

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The critical role of schools in protecting vulnerable children: why schools and social workers need immediate support to respond to the effects of lockdown

Dr Victoria Sharley
Lecturer in Social Work with Children and Families

With the majority of children returning to schools this week, referrals to Children’s Services are expected to substantially rise. As Peter Walker reported in the Guardian, schools will play ‘a pivotal role in spotting neglect and abuse’.

After nearly six months away from the classroom, children who would have previously been identified as needing help and support have been invisible to staff in schools.  According to the Department for Education, the number of referrals received by Children’s Services since schools closed due to the Covid19 outbreak, has seen a dramatic reduction of 18% (compared to the last three years).

The NSPCC states that schools are vital partners in the safeguarding and protection of our children. Staff in schools have the opportunity to observe children in a range of settings, inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers and other school staff can monitor children’s behaviour daily, over an extended period of schooling, whilst observing their interactions with peers and members of their families. They are uniquely positioned to detect concerns at an early point and share information which ensures children receive the support they need at the right time.

It is therefore essential that school staff are fully supported to recognise children who are in need of additional support, and be ready to respond to those who have been living with abuse or neglect, and are in need of protection.

A new policy report by Dr Vicky Sharley (University of Bristol) highlights findings from a recent study funded by Welsh Government through Health and Care Research Wales. The report looks at how school staff identify and respond to children they suspect are living with neglect (the most common reason for a child to be on a child protection plan in England). The report sets out key recommendations for best practice across schools and child protection services, and calls for policymakers to support schools and social workers in their unique but closely related roles within the safeguarding system.

The report also outlines a new approach for the development of effective inter-agency relationships to improve safeguarding outcomes. It is essential for children’s welfare that any concerns are raised at the earliest point possible. This requires more support for school staff and social workers to develop close working relationships and excellent communication channels. Recommendations are particularly pertinent at a time when children are returning to the classroom, having been ‘hidden’ from services for more than five months and referrals are expected to soar.

You can read the full report here. The key recommendations include the following:

  • Head Teachers should be supported to establish effective learning communities within their schools so staff develop context-specific knowledge and expertise on how to respond to child neglect effectively within a school setting.
  • Schools should recruit strategic staff who demonstrate commitment to developing expertise in child neglect to promote children’s wellbeing within the school setting.
  • School staff who know the local community well should have opportunities to provide insights into the lives of children who are suspected of living with neglect.
  • Social workers should routinely provide feedback to schools on the outcome of referrals made to child protection services and the rationale for their decision not to intervene.
  • Social workers should ensure that Child Protection Conferences are not planned during school holidays, and that information is shared with new schools where children are transitioning to secondary education.
  • Informal and formal opportunities should be made available to all staff to spend time in partner agencies to support development of knowledge and expertise about service provision.
  • The local authority’s threshold guidance document should be used as a tool for reflective discussion across services, to inform professional decision making and foster a ‘shared language’, so school staff can more effectively articulate concerns in their referrals.
  • The role of the School Social Worker responds to many interprofessional barriers between schools and child protection services, and should be established in all local authorities.

This study forms the basis of Dr Sharley’s ongoing research investigating interprofessional safeguarding practices across the United Kingdom. She would be happy to answer any questions about this study or discuss her ongoing and future work in this area.

How can schools help talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university?

Dr Jo Rose, Senior Lecturer in Education, Bristol University Graduate School of Education

Dr Jo Rose, Senior Lecturer in Education, Bristol University

There are many bright young people who come from disadvantaged family or school contexts where university attendance is not the norm.

As part of the High-Potential Learners Project, we investigated how these young people could be supported in making decisions about university. In particular, we wanted to know how to encourage high-achieving young people to consider the highly-selective, research-intensive, Russell Group universities as an option.

Over a period of two years, we worked with a group of 44 sixth-form students from schools across Bristol, to understand how and why they made decisions about university. We also analysed a large-scale, nationally-representative dataset of 2290 high-attaining learners who had turned 18 in 2009/10.

Our project found that school context was highly important with regards to subsequent university attendance, and identified some of the ways in which schools and universities can work together to support students’ decision-making.

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Schools need to do more to improve children’s religious literacy

Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy

Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy

This article was originally posted on The Conversation.

British society is in serious need of higher levels of religious literacy. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge – and schools have a big part to play in putting this right.

Religion has dramatically changed in Britain. Fewer people profess Christianity, more profess a post-Christian spirituality, humanism or atheism, while Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities assert themselves in public and seek to play a role in shaping policies.

Yet the degree of understanding of these faith actors and of religion in general is low. The need for investment in religious literacy is one of the main themes of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB), which has just published a report called Living With Difference – in which I was involved as a member of the steering group. As religious literacy and experience of diversity begins at school, we have recommended some changes to the place of religion in state education.

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GE 2015: Schools manifestos: how do they compare?


Simon Burgess,
Professor of Economics

We now have the education policies of all the main parties in this election. Some of them have been summarised for The Conversation: Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, and Plaid Cymru. How do they compare? Which policies, if any, provide the best hope for better schools?

A full comparison of all the policy components is obviously not possible in about 600 words, so I have picked three key aspects here: school funding, school turnaround, and teachers. This leaves out admissions, accountability, curriculum and qualifications, pay, provision for the 16-19 age bracket and many other important issues.

In most public services, perhaps the key issue is the level of funding. In schools, that over-riding emphasis is absent. The basic facts are that Labour and Tories promise about the same, around a 9% – 10% cut in real per-pupil terms over the parliament. The Lib Dems promise a bit more funding , and the Greens a whole lot more. Does money matter for schools? In one sense, obviously it does – people’s jobs are at risk with budget cuts, and tight budgets make life a lot harder for Headteachers. And yet whether money matters for pupil attainment is much less clear. While there is evidence on both sides, possibly the majority of researchers in this field would agree that increases in a school’s resources are unlikely to have a major effect on attainment. So some difference in policy but maybe not much that will hugely affect attainment.

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Is it really worth investing in smaller primary school classes?

Justin Dillon, Professor of Science and Environmental Education, Head of Graduate School of Education

Justin Dillon, Professor of Science and Environmental Education, Head of Graduate School of Education

Ed Miliband’s pledge that Labour, if elected, would limit school classes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 pupils reignites a core question about how best to spend money to improve education.

In making this a plank of Labour’s emerging manifesto, Miliband blames the coalition government and, in particular, the former education secretary Michael Gove, for a trebling of the number of primary pupils in classes with more than 30 children from 31,265 in 2010 to 93,345 in 2014.

Labour’s policy – which echoes a pledge by Tony Blair  in 1997 – might appeal to parents and teachers, but it is also backed by evidence that smaller class sizes do help push up attainment in the first years of primary school.

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The abolition of AS-Levels will make assessing university applicants harder: greater reliance on GCSE results will penalise late developers

Michael Gove and David Laws justified their decision to restructure A-level examinations on the basis of a flawed piece of statistical research, claiming that the absence of AS-level grades for university applicants would not harm the admissions process. Ron Johnston, Richard Harris, Tony Hoare, Kelvyn Jones and David Manley of the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol have re-examined the data and reached a contrary conclusion: without AS-Levels, late developers – which may include many from educationally-disadvantaged backgrounds – could well have their potential to succeed on a degree course at a prestigious university not recognised.

In 2013 the former UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and his Minister of State, David Laws, decided to change the A-Level qualifications taken by English and Welsh post-16 students with academic aspirations. Most of those students currently take GCSE examinations at age 16, in eight or more subjects. In the first post-compulsory year they are examined in four subjects leading to the award of AS-level grades followed, a year later, by exams in three or all four of them for A2 qualifications. The AS and A2 marks are combined to form an A-Level grade.

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The FAB Kids outreach project

Dr Mark Edwards, Research Associate, School for Policy Studies

Dr Mark Edwards, Research Associate, School for Policy Studies

Food, Activity and Bodies (FAB) Kids is a school outreach project based on the importance of healthy lifestyles. It’s a free, fun and educational workshop aimed at encouraging children to think critically about their lifestyle choices (with regards to nutrition and physical activity in particular).

The project, led by Dr Mark Edwards, is being delivered by research staff in the University of Bristol’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences (ENHS). We do a lot of research into physical activity and nutrition, and much of this research is conducted in primary schools in Bristol and the surrounding counties. FAB Kids is our way of thanking the schools and children who take part in our research.

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School meals and packed lunches: how important is government policy?

Research Associate, Centre for Market and Public Organisation

Dr. Stephanie von Hinke Kessler Scholder,  Centre for Market and Public Organisation

Last month’s government-commissioned school food review showed that the nutritional quality of school food has improved substantially since 2005, when Jamie Oliver started its campaign to improve the nutritional value of school meals. Nevertheless, take-up of school meals remains low, at 43%. In other words, 57% of children are not eating school lunches, but bring a packed lunch, have snacks, or buy their food elsewhere. The report shows that the majority of these meals are unhealthy. In fact, in contrast to what most parents think, only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards.

In addition to affecting child health, there is substantial evidence that poor nutrition affects cognitive performance. Michèle Belot and Jonathan James show in their study that the Jamie Oliver campaign led to a significant increase in children’s test scores in primary schools (Key Stage 2), as well as a drop in authorised absences (i.e. those that are mostly linked to illness and health).

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Education spending, pupil attainment and causality

Professor of Economics Director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation

Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics &
Director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation

In these hard times, spending government money effectively is more important than ever. Last week Fraser Nelson challenged the effectiveness of spending in schools, one of the areas relatively protected from Coalition cuts. He said: “The biggest surprise, though, was the money: no matter how you split the figures, the amount spent didn’t seem to make the blindest bit of difference”, his reading of a report by Deloitte commissioned by the Department for Education.

What is the evidence? In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to establish the impact of spending more money on student achievement. This is partly due to shortage of data (researchers always want more data), but there is a more fundamental reason too. Continue reading