Academies and performance pay are ‘distractions’ that won’t improve learning, John Hattie warns

Several of the government’s key education policies, including performance-related pay for teachers, extra assessment and an emphasis on schools becoming academies, are a “distraction” that will have only a “minimal” impact on students’ learning, according to new work from a leading education academic.

In a report published today, Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and one of the world’s most widely quoted education academics, says that governments around the world have been “distracted” from asking difficult questions about what works in education.

Instead, he says, they have focused on “fixes” that tend to be expensive but have a “minimal effect on student learning”. These include performance-related pay for teachers, more assessment, a greater choice of schools and different forms of schooling, he says. Other “fixes” include new buildings, greater use of technology and longer school days.

“These distract us from implementing policies that can make a significant difference,” he adds.

In the report, What doesn’t work in education: the politics of distraction, published by the education company Pearson, Professor Hattie says it is “ironic” that governments attempt to tackle “failing schools” by creating new forms of schools.

“There is a remarkable hunger to create charter schools, for-profit schools, lighthouse schools, free schools, academies, public-private schools – anything other than a public school,” his report says. “But, given that the variance in student achievement between schools is small relative to variance within schools, it is folly to believe that a solution lies in different forms of schools.”

Professor Hattie told TES he thought that policymakers in England were “particularly obsessed with between-school variance” compared with those in other countries, which he said was demonstrated by the strong emphasis on schools becoming academies. “It seems ironic to have spent years giving parents a choice over schools when we don’t talk about choice within schools, which is the biggest variance,” he said.

Professor Hattie, whose 2008 milestone “meta-analysis” of 80,000 separate education studies transformed the debate over what works in teaching, said there was some evidence to suggest a “slight increase” in achievement in new forms of schools in the short term. However, he said, in the long term there was “no difference” between these and other schools.

The report says: “This lack of a marked effect is surely not surprising when it is realised that within a year or so the ‘different’ school becomes just another school, with all the usual issues that confront all schools.”

Professor Hattie goes on to say that it is “difficult to find a performance-pay model that has made much, if any, difference to student learning,” adding that teachers in performance-pay systems tend to suffer from rising stress levels and falling enthusiasm.

The report argues that a better way to improve pupils’ learning would be to ask “hard questions” about the variable quality of teachers within schools. “This does not mean that all teachers are bad; it means that there is much variability among teachers in the effect that they have on student learning,” it says.

“Nearly all teachers, school leaders, students and parents know about this variability – although it is too often absent in discussions about policy, teaching and schools. Such discussion means asking some very hard questions; hence, the politics of distraction are often invoked to avoid asking them.”

In a separate report, What works best in education: the politics of collaborative expertise, Hattie concludes that the “greatest influence on student progression” is “having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximise the effect of their teaching on all students in their care.”

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