Speech: Researchers in Schools programme

I am delighted to be here this evening to celebrate the Researchers in Schools programme, and to welcome the new cohort. Of all the initiatives currently being undertaken by the government, this is one about which I am most excited.

Researchers in Schools is uniquely placed to address some of the most pressing issues in British schools. Widening university access, valuing the importance of subject knowledge, and research-based teaching are 3 core priorities for this government. They are also 3 areas where teachers with PhDs can have an enormous impact.

As a government, we have been unapologetic in our expectation that schools should employ the most well-qualified, academic teachers they can. Schools should, above all else, be centres of academic excellence within every community in the country.

Significant progress has already been made in this direction. In 2010, only 61% of trainee teachers had an undergraduate degree at level 2:1 or above. This year, that figure stands at 73%. Through Researchers in Schools, even more highly qualified subject specialists will be entering the profession.

Unfortunately, there is a myth still at large within education that teachers who know their subject too well, are too detached from the level of understanding held by youngsters, and are as a consequence too ethereal to make effective teachers.

This is nonsense. Deep subject knowledge is invaluable for teachers. When it comes to thinking up the perfect analogy to teach negative numbers; an imaginative experiment to demonstrate exothermic reactions; or a succinct way to explain exactly what the Large Hadron Collider is, a knowledge of, and passion for, one’s subject is vital.

As part of the Researchers in Schools programme, participants are encouraged to design units of work based on their own research fields. One participant from last year’s cohort used her experience working on the Twinkle space mission to create school resources teaching children about interstellar exploration.

I feel envious of the pupils who are set to benefit from such inspirational teaching.

The Researchers in Schools programme prioritises recruiting teachers in STEM subjects, in particular mathematics and physics. Nobody needs reminding that British employers face ongoing skills shortages in these areas.

I am delighted that there are a number of participants with an arts background in the room. But it is also vital that the government continues its drive on STEM subjects. Crucially, this should not be interpreted as promoting science at the expense of the creative arts.

We value the sciences and the arts equally: knowledge of both is crucial to becoming a well-educated person who can function in today’s world. We would like to see more pupils entering higher and further education in all academic areas, science and arts alike.

As a model of an educated person, one could take the eminent 20th-century polymath CP Snow. He was a physical chemist at the University of Cambridge, but also a popular novelist, and later in life a senior civil servant.

In 1959, Snow delivered one of the most seminal lectures of the 20th century, called ‘The Two Cultures’. The 2 cultures in question were science and literature, and Snow was insistent that a knowledge of both was important not only to be a well-educated individual, but also to have an economically viable workforce.

But it was science that had been historically neglected within England. Snow explained that, by the middle of the 19th century, ‘Far-sighted men were beginning to see… that in order to go on producing wealth, the country needed to train some of its bright minds in science, particularly in applied science. No one listened. The traditional culture didn’t listen at all.’

Snow made that observation in 1959, yet same problem persists today. One in 10 state schools have no pupils progressing to either further maths or physics at A level, and 1 in 3 physics teachers have themselves not studied the subject beyond A level.

This lack of take-up in the maths and sciences is particularly acute amongst female pupils. Whilst nearly half of boys who gained an A* grade at physics GCSE in 2011 went on to study the subject at A level, only around a fifth of girls did so.

However, before I begin to sound too gloomy, there are significant reasons to be cheerful. One of the achievements of the previous government of which I am most proud of is this: there were 38,000 more entries for science and maths A levels in 2015 compared with 2010 – a 17% increase.

Due to the government’s focus on STEM subjects, there has been a 17% jump in entries for physics A level since 2010, a 19% jump in entries for chemistry, and a 28% jump in entries for further maths. Today, mathematics is by a stretch the most popular A level subject, with 92,000 entries in 2015.

To return to my previous point, this has not been at the expense of other subjects. History, English literature and geography have also seen a significant rise in uptake at A level since 2010.

We are already well on the way to achieving the aim of the government’s YourLife campaign. Launched in November 2014, this campaign aims to increase the number of students studying maths and physics A levels by 50% within 3 years. We hope that the maths and physics chairs programme within Researchers in Schools will play a central role in this campaign.

Lastly, I am entirely in support of agreement that Researchers in Schools participants have 1 day off a week to continue their research interests and pursue a range of innovative programme activities. That link with higher education will foster a fruitful relationship in all of the schools involved. And I am delighted that some participants are already applying their research expertise to the field of education research.

Education research is a fertile area of contemporary debate. Up until a few years ago, the quality of research in education was – to put it bluntly – embarrassing. In 1999, the ‘Tooley Report’ showed that almost two-thirds of articles in education journals did not meet a minimum standard of academic good practice.

In 2013, the teacher and Times Education Supplement columnist Tom Bennett attacked the shoddy ‘evidence’ used to back up some very dubious teaching practices – ‘voodoo teaching’ he called them – in his excellent book ‘Teacher Proof’.

Bennett exposed pseudoscience hampering British classrooms: neuro-linguistic programming, left-brain right-brain divisions, and the theory of multiple intelligences to name but 3.

Most notorious was the trademarked, and highly lucrative programme Brain Gym which was avidly taken up by thousands of schools across the country. To give a flavour of the practices advocated by Brain Gym, it instructed that teachers should begin lessons by leading their pupils in an exercise rubbing their ‘brain buttons’ on either side of the breast bone, which would stimulate blood flow from the lungs to the brain.

Tom Bennett was scathing in his criticism of this professional snake oil. So was the physician and writer Ben Goldacre, who held Brain Gym up to ridicule in his 2009 book ‘Bad Science’.

In 2013, the government invited Ben Goldacre to write a report about how teaching could benefit from better quality research. Goldacre’s advocacy of randomised controlled trials to test educational interventions has directly influenced government policy.

This is because our government believes in basing teaching, as far as is possible, on evidence. In 2011, we established the Education Endowment Foundation. Now in its fifth year, the foundation is providing teachers with high-quality evidence showing them which classroom practices will help their most deprived pupils.

Since 2011, the EEF has awarded £57 million to 100 projects working with over 620,000 pupils in over 4,900 schools throughout England. It has published 45 individual project evaluation reports – all available to teachers for free online.

In addition to writing ‘Teacher Proof’, Tom Bennett has established a highly successful series of education conferences called ResearchEd. Started in 2013, ResearchEd brings together teachers and education researchers in a series of talks. I will be at their next event on Saturday 6 September, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in improving classroom practice to do the same.

Grassroots movements such as ResearchEd assure me that there has never been a better time to enter the teaching profession than now. Since I became Shadow Minister for Schools in 2005, I have seen teachers taking increased control of their profession, demanding new and better evidence for what works in the classroom.

My hope for Researchers in Schools is that participants will act as higher education envoys in schools across the country, promoting the values of subject knowledge; good scientific methodology; and a university education to their pupils and schools.

From Ivybridge Community College in Devon to Manchester Creative Media Academy in the North West, future generations will be inspired by teachers with a true command of their subject.

Teaching is one of the most exciting, life-affirming, and unequivocally good professions that we have. I wish you all the very best of luck.

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