I’m data blogging elsewhere…

Nearly all my blog posts here have involved data or reviews of fairly quantitative research. Except for one of the most popular, which was just a polemic about keeping school buildings open for longer. (I guess people aren’t so interested in cold, hard facts about education policy after all.)

From now on, all my ‘normal’ data posts are going to be on the Education Datalab blog. I won’t be reposting them here, not least because it isn’t WordPress powered (long story…). Do take a look – I’ve already blogged on non-specialist teachers and free schools, amongst other things. If you are a Twitter-type you can keep in touch with our posts by following @edudatalab.

I’m going to reserve blogging here for things that are utterly unsupported by data and maybe even some non-education policy things. New posts to follow very soon…

Economics of Education

Economists analyse the production of education in this world where resources such as the capital invested in buildings or technology and the labour of the teacher workforce are necessarily scarce. This scarcity of resources means that policymakers must decide:

  1. How much to spend on each stage of education (i.e. what to produce);
  2. How to provide educational services in a way that maximises its benefits to society (i.e. how to produce education); and
  3. Who should have access to each stage of education (i.e. for whom is education provided).

Economic theory is able to help policy makers by providing both facts about the education system and values to inform decision-making. The part of economics that is concerned with establishing facts about the world is called positive economics. It asks questions such as ‘can we improve the quality of teachers by increasing pay’ or ‘will smaller class sizes raise pupil attainment’? Normative economics asks questions that require value judgments such as ‘is it fair to charge higher education students tuition fees’?

A social welfare framework underpins the dominant approach in the economics of education. According to this framework, society should strive to arrange educational services to be produced and distributed in manner that is both efficient and equitable. Efficiency means that educational outputs are maximised, given a set of constrained resources. Equity means that services are distributed according to some principle of social justice or fairness.

Individuals and governments often face hard choices because of the scarce resources they possess. For example, expanding higher education and increasing provision of early years care might both appear to be policies that have the potential to improve the well-being of society overall, but which should a government prioritise? Economists describe the costs of taking a particular action as opportunity costs, because the greatest cost of expanding higher education might be the lost benefits of not undertaking the next best alternative policy, such as increased provision of early years care.

Short history of the economics of education

Economists are normally associated with ensuring that profit-making companies and the overall economy functions well, but they have slowly expanded their interests to new spheres of society. The origin of the economics of education as a significant field within economics dates back to the theoretical and empirical developments made by American economists such as Gary Becker and Jacob Mincer in the 1960s. Their work introduced the idea of education as human capital and they attempted to calculate the economic returns to acquiring education.

Over the past decade there has been an enormous growth of interest by economists in education policy, both in the UK and across the world. This has been accompanied by a growing political interest in market-based reforms across the public sector. These types of reforms include devolvement of financial planning to front-line institutions such as hospitals and schools and giving consumers of public services choice about which provider to use. Economists from other fields such as labour economics have been attracted by the growing availability of large-scale datasets that facilitate complex statistical analysis to analyse the impact of particular policy initiatives. Examples of these data include the National Pupil Database in England, which has collected annual information on the background characteristics and Key Stage attainment data of all pupils in state-maintained schools since 2002, and the PISA, an international survey of the skills of 15 year olds across many industrialised countries.

What is the economic paradigm?

Economic theory makes certain assumptions about human behaviour in order to make predictions about the effects of policy changes. The starting point of economic analysis is that individuals and institutions are rational agents (often given the name homo-economicus), operating with self-interested intent as they make decisions about providing or participating in education. Individuals are assumed to set themselves a goal of maximising their own well-being (or utility), given fixed preferences or tastes for education and a well-defined money constraint. Many economic theories assume that human brains possess perfect computational powers to process all the information needed to make optimal choices at all times!

These economic models of individuals and institutions present a simplified version of reality and for this reason they have been criticised by many sociologists and psychologists who claim they bear little resemblance to the real world. However, economists would argue that these simplifying assumptions are necessary to make precise predictions about the likely impact of policies in this complex world we live in. To put it another way, economists do not really believe that humans are so selfish and simple in their motivations; they just believe that this simplification is a useful analytical tool to help us understand the world better.

Books where you can learn more…

Checchi, Daniele (2008) The Economics of Education: Human Capital, Family Background and Inequality,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [This book provides a comprehensive overview of most of the work currently being carried out in the field]

Le Grand, J., Propper, C. and Smith, S. (2008) The Economics of Social Problems, London: Palgrave Macmillan. [An introduction to economic theory applied to a wide variety of social problems, including education]

Machin, S. and Vignoles, A. (2005) What’s the Good of Education? Princeton: Princeton University Press. [A non-technical UK perspective on the economics of education]

Barr, N. (2004) Economics of the Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press. [If you have studied a little economics before, this book gives an excellent overview of relevant economic theory]

If you can get access to academic journal articles, you might find this an interesting starting point:  Machin, S. (2008) The new economics of education: methods, evidence and policy, Journal of Population Economics, 21 pp 1-19.

Where to find relevant journal articles…

Articles by economists about education policy are published in specialist journals such as:

They also publish in other economic journals, such as:

Other articles can be found across geography, statistics and education journals, such as:

Where to find discussion papers…

IDEAS at RePEc.  Almost all economics of education journal articles are first made available as working papers here.

Institute for the Study of Labor.  The German think-tank IZA publishes many papers in the field of economics of education.

Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol.  This is one of the the largest centres for research in economics of education in the UK.

Centre for Economics of Education.  CEE is a multi-institutional research centre based at the Centre for Economic Performance (LSE), IFS and IOE.

Institute for Fiscal Studies.  IFS publishes reports about education spending in the UK.

National Bureau of Economic Research.  NBER publishes many US working papers in the field of economics of education.  However, you need a subscription to download the actual papers.

National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.  NCSPE is based at Teachers College, University of Colombia.

Mandating 10 hour opening times for school buildings*

*NB. Yes, buildings. Not teachers. Not headteachers. Not pupils.

Today I’m blogging without data, or even much evidence. We have had a few interesting commentaries from education bloggers on longer school days (here and here), but the twitter debate fell quickly into criticisms about impacts on family life, which need to be challenged. I believe the provision of non-compulsory extended schools is an essential reform to support families – as families by definition will include women who want, or need to work. And it is still women who are overwhelmingly expected to meet their children at the gates of schools well before the working day is over.

Schools are public institutions if they take tax-payers money (yes, even church schools and academies). Their buildings are ideal places for children to spend time, whether that time is spent learning, playing, doing extra-curricular activities, eating, and yes Tom… even just baby-sitting. Instead of the patchwork of finding childcare, after-school clubs, ad-hoc play dates and other activities to fill the rest of the day, let’s start using these expensive buildings to serve the modern needs of families.

I would like the government to mandate that publicly funded schools must open their buildings from at least 8am to 6pm, without restrictions on number of places available in their extended day. Schools can make reasonable charges to either children or providers for extended day activities, and there should be no requirement on either pupils or teachers to attend.

My reason why is the reality of combining children with work and a career.

Before I had children I had been prepared for the fact that the pre-school years would screw up my career a bit, but assumed that once children went to school, childcare would become more straightforward. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Until my child is five I can (pay of course) to send her to a nursery where I can pick and choose for her day to start at 8am, 9am, 12 noon or 12:45pm and for her day to end at 12 noon, 12:45pm, 3:45pm or 6pm. Whilst there she takes music lessons with a specialist, learns to swim, spends many hours playing inside and outside, is introduced to letters and numbers, and so on. She loves it and I love to work while she is there.

I could keep her in this institution after the age of five because the nursery happens to be attached to a private school that has been forced to extend its working day to meet the desire and/or the needs of my generation of women who mostly want to work. But unfortunately my ideological beliefs and desire for her to be educated in her local community make this impossible.

I don’t live in a part of the world where state schools generally open for 10 hours a day or where there is a pool of affordable labour looking for work from 3pm-6pm each day. So, I am resigned to spending many afternoons each week standing at the school gate, driving my children to extra-curricular clubs, sitting reading my twitter feed while the club is running, driving them home and preparing their tea while they watch TV. Yes, it is great for families to spend quality time together, but this doesn’t feel like good quality time to me. If it was so great, I suspect it would be shared more evenly across the sexes. I believe it would be better for my child and for my career if schools were required to house a wide variety of fee-charging after-school clubs (youth clubs, sports, individual and collective music activities, ballet and gym, homework support, maths catch-up, one-to-one tutoring, arts and crafts, drama, etc…) for families who wanted to use this additional care. We could, as taxpayers and citizens, choose to subsidise this provision for some groups of children or even require attendance for others, but this would be controversial and step far beyond straightforward support for working parents.

I enjoyed Paul Kirby’s blog this week on lengthening the school day, but I don’t think he successfully made the case for longer mandatory opening hours for all children. Let’s look at Kirby’s arguments and some of the problems in the evidence, even where he has cited it. He says:

  • “The evidence on the impact of classroom hours on attainment is strong”, citing Kipp schools in the US. But unless we are to invite Kipp to come and run our schools, the correct evidence base is really rather weak
  • “It wouldn’t cost any money because we can redeploy Teaching Assistants to run additional activities without detriment to children they currently support”. This is not a view of the evidence that Peter Blatchford, the academic who is most quoted in this area, would subscribe to.
  • “Teachers currently work shorter hours than other workers so should be required to work a normal day”. This is a particularly ill informed prejudice. Teachers would work shorter hours, if children needed no pastoral care, lessons needed no planning and books needed no marking (see here). I worked far longer hours as a teacher than I did as an investment banker.
  • (And even if we had the money, we cannot substantially increase the size of the teacher workforce without comprising quality of new recruits.)

Postscript: Since I wrote this blogpost the government has published an interesting research report.

Five observations on the TouchPaper problems party

Last weekend, Laura McInerney and I hosted a rather experimental TouchPaper problems party. Her blog here tells you what happened on the day and a few party goers have started writing up their own thoughts on the day (here, here and here). Here are five observations from the perspective of a rather-out-of-touch-with-the-classroom academic:

1. I have never done so little preparation for event I have hosted. Laura was in the wrong part of the world; I was busy shelving research projects for my impending maternity leave. So, we could either host a day with close to zero preparation or not at all. I asked the Director of IOE, Chris Husbands, to give us a room, drinks and wifi while Laura wrote a set of blog posts to light the TouchPaper for each group. We outsourced all intellectual preparation to our fantastic group leaders in return for a couple of drinks and dinner. Without their help we would have been sunk. Thank you.

2. Smart, motivated adults don’t need as much event structure as young, easily-distracted children. Giving the groups complete discretion as to how they spent four hours produced an amazing diversity of activities. Some of the approaches reflected the size of the group (consensus is that 3 is too small and 8 is too large). One group spent an hour largely silent writing and reading pink post-it notes:

2014-01-18 11.58.13

And while a couple of party-goers commented that they would have liked more structure in the day, more appeared to value the flexibility afforded to groups to do exactly as they pleased.

3. To answer the TouchPaper problems, group work needs to be complemented by intense individual endeavour. Group work enables sophisticated discussions about the interpretation of the TouchPaper problem and how it can be broken down into necessary sub-questions. It also works well for research design. But somewhere between conceptualisation and research design somebody needs to review relevant literature.

4.  Research summaries that instruct teachers what to do in the classroom are a poor substitute for intense engagement in a research question. Educational research naturally wants to get teachers to use their studies to inform classroom practice (e.g. see current BERA and EEF efforts). Teachers are busy people and it is easy to infer that ‘digested’ research summaries and toolkits are the only practical approaches to achieving this. But these summaries are necessarily reductionist (e.g. you should give your pupils’ feedback on their work) and I wonder whether they alienate teachers who appreciate the complexity of deciding best practice across a variety of settings. Teachers live an incredibly hectic and stressful life during term-time, yet more than one party-goer said that engaging in the TouchPaper problems on a Saturday was exactly what they needed to re-fuel and reaffirm their love of teaching.

5. My dream school would employ these 40-odd party-goers, from the PGCE student through to the headteachers and ex-teaching drifters like this and thisI was blown away by some of the conversations I eavesdropped on (and occasionally baffled by our complexity group):

2014-01-18 11.43.56

Admittedly we made no effort to recruit a representative sample of teachers (see point 1). Our party was made up of a self-selected group of the most engaged of the edu-twitterati and bloggers. Any future TouchPaper problems party might have to be organised differently to reflect diversity of engagement in educational policy-making and research amongst more typical teachers.

Announcing: The 1st TouchPaper Problem Solving Party

An invitation from Laura McInerney to our TouchPaper Problem Solving Party…

Laura McInerney


Back in September, the ResearchEd conference hosted a vast range of speakers suggesting how research might be more effectively used in education. My own contribution was a presentation of 7 problems which, if answered, would help teachers understand important things about their job. (See the full talk here)

The list was called the “TouchPaper Problems” – a reference to the blue paper with which one lights fireworks. I created each problem because I felt it would give information useful in classrooms. They are difficult questions though. Each one will require several layers of theory-testing and consideration before they can be considered ‘solved’. This sort of public problem-solving approach in the past motivated mathematicians and engineers to solve some of the most fundamental problems in their sector. My theory is simple: we should do the same in education.

To move things forward the brilliant Becky Allen suggested it…

View original post 455 more words

Averages and tails: What sort of pupils benefit most from Teach First participants?

When Joe Kirby and I presented data on whether Teach First is working at ResearchED2013 earlier this month, the best audience question came from Arthur Baker who wanted to know whether the improvements in average school attainment following Teach First participation meant that the most disadvantaged students were benefiting, or not.

This question struck a particular chord with me because I had recently read Machin and Silva’s chapter in The Tail, an excellent collection of essays about underachieving pupils in English schools. They showed that, although the early sponsored academies had indeed improved average GCSE outcomes (see Machin and Vernoit for evidence on this), there was no improvement in GCSE attainment for those starting secondary school at the bottom of the Key Stage two distribution. So, a policy designed to improve life chances for those at risk of being left behind in under-performing schools seemingly did not impact on those within the schools who were most educationally disadvantaged.

To return to Arthur’s question: what sort of pupils benefit most from a school’s participation in Teach First? We didn’t answer this in my original paper with Jay Allnutt, but I’ve re-opened up our datasets to have a look. In the paper we compare the performance of a particular pupil across their core subjects of GCSE English, maths and science to see how well the pupil performs in the department(s) who chose to take Teach First participants, compared to those who did not. We showed that departments taking on Teach First participants were more ineffective than others within the same school before joining Teach First (scoring about 10% of a GCSE grade worse), but that by years two and three of participation they were outperforming their neighbouring departments who did not join Teach First (by about 15% of a GCSE grade).


To mirror the analysis of Machin and Silva on academies, I looked at how lower and higher ability children responded to the presence of Teach First participants in the department. The chart below shows that the overall pattern of impact of Teach First is similar for children across the ability distribution. Those scoring in either the top 10% or bottom 10% at Key Stage two do not appear to be particularly suffering in their attainment within the department who will soon join Teach First. (We can only speculate as to why – e.g. very high achieving pupils have strategies and other support systems for overcoming any teacher quality issues; very low prior attainment pupils have specific circumstances that dominate GCSE grades across all subjects.) In years two and three after joining Teach First, it appears that improvements in attainment are shared across the ability spectrum. It is hard to make claims as to why this should be so, not least because Teach First themselves have not systematically collected information on what year groups and which ability sets within year groups their participants are teaching.


Finally, to answer the question that Arthur Baker was most interested in, this chart shows that the responsiveness of free school meals pupils to the placement of Teach First participants in departments is very similar to the response of other pupils. If anything, the free school meals pupils appear to benefit a little more (and this difference is statistically significant in year two).


Do we really have to wait a whole year for researched2014?

Others have blogged about researched2013 and how great it was. I want researched2014 to be just like researched2013 because it was perfect. But just in case Tom Bennett and Helene decide to tamper with the current model, here are seven (it’s always 3 or 7) minor modifications I’d vote for:

  1. Many participants were tweeters, so wifi is pretty important. But if we get wifi next year our phone batteries will run down, so we’ll need a phone charging station too.
  2. Let’s have a consistent hashtag next time. How about #resed2014 compromise, or am I just encouraging further hashtag proliferation? (And what about a screen somewhere showing the tweets as they appear?)
  3. Participant lists are really useful for people who like stalking at or after the conference
  4. If we’d had twitter avatars and handles on our name badges I would have been able to spot Andrew Old!
  5. It was fine having no lunch break. Lunch breaks just produce huge queues. How about charging everyone for a lunch bag in the ticket price that they can pick up and eat anytime?
  6. Dulwich College worked pretty well but it was so hard to get to! Some of us visited a Dulwich village pub afterwards. I couldn’t stay long, but met even more new people and learnt about Croydon schools and English GCSE controlled assessment! Can we have a venue nearer a nice pub please?
  7. Laura McInerney‘s (say “mac-in-errr-knee”) session on #touchpaper problems is the one I’m still thinking about because it was participatory and left us something very specific to think about. I thought about running a more interactive session myself, but chickened out. Conventional talks are great, but perhaps a little more audience participation (or homework!) might be nice for next year?

I hope we don’t have to wait until September 2014 to engage with researched stuff again. It is probably unreasonable to expect Tom Bennett to do everything for us (please Tom?), so I guess we each have to make some sort of tiny contribution. What is yours going to be?