What was it like growing up in the UK, and was there a particular teacher or subject that impacted on you more than others?
My own early education has been hugely influential. My big brother and I attended a tiny village primary school in rural Wales. Our parents were engaged, interested and on the board of trustees. We were regularly reported to be sailing through school. Then, when my brother was 11, he sat an entrance test for a nearby selective secondary school and despite the predictions he failed the test. That was the first my parents knew of any potential problems. After a lot of deliberation ... I was taken out of that school and sent to a fee-paying girls’ school in England. I travelled 45 minutes by car each way every day for the last two years of primary school and I had never worked so hard. I had huge catching up to do because the expectations were so much higher than they had been in the village primary school. Happily for me, the two years in that private school caught me up.
I went on to become a maths teacher, so I do think back to the lady who taught me maths. I had the same maths teacher throughout secondary school. She was really old fashioned, and really experienced... To be honest, I don’t think I am an incredibly gifted mathematician, but I think her rigorous instruction and high expectations partly explain why I went on to ... study economics at university.
Your current career seems to be a departure from economics and maths...
No, I wouldn’t see it that way. My final master’s paper was on the economics of education; I was always interested in how policy affects the school system, and I think the tools of economics can be usefully applied in this policy space. When you boil it down, economics is a framework for analysing the world. And I think the kind of tools it brings, concepts like opportunity cost, are really useful when it comes to education. For example, we might want school to deliver bushcraft, wellbeing and driving lessons, but we have to be mindful that if they’re going to do those things, something else has to give. I think if we were more mindful of opportunity cost, teachers’ work life balance would be better managed and that would be better for everyone in the school system, particularly children.
Why did you cross over into research?
I actually started out in research! My first ever job was similar to the one I do now. I worked for Policy Exchange, a think tank in Westminster. But after a couple of years of that, I decided I was too inexperienced to be writing about education policy. I needed to understand what was going on, particularly in our disadvantaged schools. So, I joined the Teach First program, which places you in challenging schools, and it really was the best decision I ever made. I learned so much more than I bargained for. Aside from how to handle room-fulls of restless teenagers, I learned that the real problem in our schools is a crisis of ideas; it’s not about funding or structures, it’s about ideas, philosophies and ideologies trumping evidence. That’s why I organised the researchEDNZ conference last year.
Is that the main motivating factor for what you do now?
Removing inequity in the school system is what motivates me, and evidence is the key. It comes in three formats: there’s what we know about human cognitive architecture, how the brain works; there’s evidence from empirical studies; and there’s my own experience of teaching disadvantaged children in London secondary and primary schools.
In some schools I taught in I was highly effective. In others I was not. I wasn’t working any less hard in the latter group of schools. The kids weren’t any more or less smart. The difference was in the culture, ideas and expectations in those schools. Ten years ago, when I first started teaching, the UK was like New Zealand is today. Unless the school had a maverick head teacher who was willing to swim against the tide, the philosophy and culture in the school used to just default to the one in our teacher training institutions. That is why in England we moved to break up the universities’ monopoly on initial teacher training. It was too ideological; outright ignoring what we know about learning in favour of more progressive, romantic ideas about children unfurling, growing and developing. The place for child-led approaches is limited. That’s a message I’m working to communicate.
Do you think schools need help translating research into practice?
Not quite. I shy away from the idea that a single body or institution or government agency or person has the answers about what every school should do. I think contexts do matter. What concerns me is that teachers, during their training, are not taught to demand evidence, they’re not inducted into the debates. Too often they are given a very one-sided, ideological perspective. And that’s not right. That isn’t the role of training or universities.
Ultimately, the way to get past this problem is to measure progress and hold schools accountable, then what works will come out in the wash. To measure progress, we need to have baseline assessments. Next, we need to group schools into families so that they can compare with schools that have similar intakes and circumstances. At the moment, without accountability, the ‘best schools’ are the ones with the shiniest classrooms, the best rugby team, the highest decile or the head teacher who’s the best salesperson. That’s not a good situation to be in. We should have a landscape where the best schools are the ones where kids make the most progress.
Are we heading in the right direction now, with the Ministry’s reviews currently underway?
I think the Tomorrow’s Schools report is prefaced by an excellent description of the symptoms of what’s wrong in our school system. To that extent it adds needed heat to the discussion, but not a lot of light. I think it’s based on some preloaded assumptions, for example that competition between schools is unhealthy [and] that competition is inimical to collaboration. Those two are patently ideological assumptions. I think Tomorrow’s Schools was destined to fail because we don’t measure outcomes properly in New Zealand schools, particularly in primary schools, and we don’t have any standardised assessment. And also, I can only defend competition between schools if we are going to give a lot more money to schools that serve disadvantaged and low decile communities. The amount of extra money those schools need must be determined in response to information about how schools perform, but we don’t have that information. NCEA is incredibly blunt, it masks huge variation in what children have actually learned, and in primary school we don’t have any standardised assessments. Whatever their faults, National Standards were an attempt to move in that direction. We need a government to be much more ambitious and single minded in driving through the need for robust assessment.
The first band I ever saw live was... Goldie Lookin’ Chain, a comedy Welsh rap band. Look them up, they’re pretty cool!
My husband would describe me as... I asked him and he said ‘running late’.
The best thing about living in New Zealand... has got to be the great outdoors!