Let's have evidence-based policy

Ellen Greaves stresses the value of using national pupil data to improve education research and policy.

Students working in classThanks to the Department for Education, we now have a wealth of information about every state school pupil in England. The National Pupil Database (NPD) holds a range of administrative data, including information on gender, ethnicity and attainment in national assessments. This data is vital for improving education research and policy in this country. The evidence uncovered can question or counter public observations, anecdotal evidence, and research from particular (unrepresentative) settings that might otherwise influence policy-makers.

Why is national pupil data so important? The collection of this data allows the research community to answer questions of importance for schools and policy-makers based on representative and accurate information, challenging existing and widely held beliefs about how pupil and school characteristics affect pupil attainment.

Take the example of the academic performance of London schools. You may have heard of the ‘London effect’ – schools in London now have higher academic performance, on average, than elsewhere in England. The widely held belief is that the performance of schools in London has increased dramatically in recent years in response to a number of factors, including Teach First (a charity that places high-achieving graduates into disadvantaged schools), the Academies programme, and the London Challenge (a school improvement programme based in the capital).

What can NPD data add to this seemingly informed debate? We at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in partnership with the Institute of Education, decided to use this data to explore the ‘London effect’...

Our report, commissioned by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, focused on the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. We found that disadvantaged pupils (defined using a measure of eligibility for free school meals) have higher academic attainment at the end of compulsory schooling in London schools than elsewhere in England, on average, and that this difference has been increasing over the last decade. For example, 54% of disadvantaged pupils in Inner London achieved 5 good GCSEs in 2012, compared to 47% in Outer London and 30%-40% in regions outside of London. The ‘London effect’ already existed in 2002 but it was much smaller: 25% achieved 5 good GCSEs in Inner London, 24% in Outer London, 15%-21% across other regions of England.

While the evidence appears to confirm the ‘London effect’, at least for disadvantaged pupils, our research challenges the commonly cited explanations for this effect. Using data that links pupil attainment at secondary school to prior attainment at primary school, we concluded that the majority of the increase in performance of London’s secondary schools was in fact accounted for by improvements in pupil attainment at the end of primary school. As this improvement at primary school started in the late 1990s, and Teach First, the Academies programme, and the London Challenge were all introduced later – and were initially focused on secondary schools – it is unlikely that these programmes alone can explain the ‘London effect’, although they could have helped sustain the improvement.

These findings call into question the proposal to expand the London Challenge to other areas of the country. Although our analysis cannot rule out potential positive effects of the London Challenge, it does suggest we should be careful about overstating the success of this programme. If the roots of success in London can be traced back further, to improvement in attainment at primary level, perhaps we should be focusing on policies that affected primary school pupils in the 1990s, rather than later initiatives.

Ultimately, NPD data alone can’t provide all the answers. What it can do is provide accurate and objective information, enabling researchers to boldly challenge widely held beliefs and assumptions. With strengthened interaction between the research community and policy-makers, we have the potential to improve education policy in England.

Ellen Greaves is Senior Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies

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