A US educationist claims to have the answer to failing schools – and it lies in literacy

Hilary Wilce talks to Robert Slavin and visits a school that's putting his ideas into practice

Schools in Britain are going nowhere fast. This week the Government announced that hundreds of secondary schools would have to close if they didn't improve their GCSE results. One in five pupils still starts at secondary school with poor basic skills, and last month Ofsted announced that standards had "stalled".

The education watchdog now plans to give failing schools more inspections, but a top US educationist believes that could be barking up the wrong tree. He says we know perfectly well how to fix schools. We just don't choose to do it. Instead, we pass over all the things that have been shown to work in favour of random hunches, short-lived fashions and empty political posturings.

Robert Slavin is a leading educational psychologist who has arrived in the UK to head up the newly formed Institute for Effective Education at York University. He directs a similar centre at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and is famous for a ground-breaking school reform programme that now runs in 1,200 schools in the US.

In his new job, Slavin plans to direct attention to what works in education, and persuade schools to implement it. He is deeply frustrated by how no school system in the world is yet rooted in policies based on hard evidence.

"Our problem isn't a lack of knowledge about how children learn, or what effective teaching methods are," he says. "Our problem is a lack of knowledge about how to help teachers apply research-proven methods every day."

Look at healthcare, he says. For 150 years we have known that hand-washing reduces hospital infections, yet infections are escalating and studies show that much of this is because people don't wash their hands properly. But when a researcher in one Baltimore hospital developed a checklist for surgical teams to use in intensive care units, doctors scoffed at it and said they already followed procedures. The researcher did studies that showed that they didn't. Finally, the teams agreed to give it a try – and infections dropped from 11 per cent to zero.

A group of Michigan hospitals then also used the checklists, and cut their infection rates by 66 per cent, saving 1,500 lives and nearly £90m in just a year and a half. What education needs, Slavin believes, is more proper hand-washing. "Research tells us a lot about effective education. Yet until those well-established principles are formed into detailed and replicable programmes, and evaluated in comparison with traditional methods, we're unlikely to make systematic, broad-scale progress."

Slavin's own school reform package is exactly such a programme. Success for All promotes early educational success for children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, by concentrating on basic literacy. It was started in 1987 in the US, and 10 years later arrived in the UK, where it was tried out in Nottingham, and where some pupils quickly made a year's progress in one term. Now it is used in 90 schools in this country, all in deprived areas, and between 2004 and 2007 the pupils in those schools made almost three times more progress in reading at Key Stage 2 than pupils in other schools in England.

Success for All uses phonics, setting, regular assessment and paired learning to ensure that all children get a good start in school and no one is left behind (see box), and more might have been heard about it here except that a sudden enthusiasm for one of its key elements – phonics – swept the board in our literacy debate. Interestingly, Ruth Miskin, the former primary school head who spearheaded the drive for phonics, once worked for Success for All before leaving to develop her own materials for schools.

Some critics argue that the Success for All approach is too prescriptive. They say no single approach suits all children, and a programme that visibly groups young children by ability is likely to make some children feel like losers before they start.

Slavin simply points to the evidence. Controlled experiments in the US have proved the effectiveness of Success for All, while the studies of the programme as it spreads in the UK, and in other countries such as Canada, Mexico and Australia, are showing similarly positive results.

"At present, most important educational decisions are made on the basis of marketing, word of mouth, tradition and politics, which then leads to the famous pendulum of educational reform, in which new ideas appear and become widely used and only then are evaluated. By the time the evaluation evidence is in, educators and policy makers have already given up on the new idea, and have rushed off on the latest new idea."

Instead, he says, we need more proven educational programmes, more rigorous and impartial reviews of educational research, and for the Government to provide incentives for schools to take up programmes that have been shown to work. The consequences of this would be far-reaching. "If government policies began to favour programmes with strong evidence, developers including publishers, software producers, university researchers and entrepreneurs of all kinds would have an incentive to engage in serious development and evaluation efforts. And seeing the immediate impact of research and development, policy makers might provide greater funding for these activities."

The Institute of Effective Education plans to develop, evaluate and disseminate effective programmes, which, says Slavin, are thin on the ground in the UK so far. Researchers are trying out cooperative mathematics learning in primary schools and a programme for gifted and talented students. They are also surveying existing research on the participation of minority ethnic students in post-16 education, and on primary reading programmes.

The difference between it and other university education departments is that it doesn't train teachers, it is focusing, instead, on high-quality, randomised evaluations, and it intends to bang the drum for evidence-based progress.

Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, is its chair and calls it "a visionary concept to create an international, independent resource to produce really effective education for all young people. The biggest challenge facing us is to break the persistent link between poverty and under-achievement."

Slavin is in no doubt that sticking to the evidence could bring educational reforms "benefiting hundreds and thousands of children".

But he is realistic about how quickly this will happen. After all, he points out, it took 19th-century surgeons decades to adopt the new-fangled idea of washing their hands before operations, and even today doctors hate the "stupid little checklist" which reminds them how to wash their hands.

'The reason we use it, is because it accelerates learning'

St Stephen's Church of England Primary School, near the Oval cricket ground in south London, started using Robert Slavin's Success for All programme last year and is already seeing pupils do better. Head teacher Louise Salewski introduced the programme for the youngest pupils after taking over the 200-pupil primary, where many pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have English as their second language.

The programme sorts children according to their reading levels, and gets them to work in pairs. They are assessed every six weeks and moved according to their progress, so they are always working from books that are right for where they are. The sessions take 90 minutes every morning.

Children listen to what their partners read out and then restate it. Fernanda, seven, and Carolina, six, are sitting together even though Fernanda is in Year Three and Carolina is in Year 2. Fernanda reads: "Scott puts his hand in the pond. 'Tanya get a stick!' says Scott." "It's about Scott puts his hand in a pond," says Carolina. "Also," says Jeffrey, six, explaining more about the partnership arrangements, "if they get stuck you have to help them."

In a next-door class, a lively paired maths session is under way. The school is helping to trial Power Math, for the Institute of Effective Education at York University, a maths programme that uses the same kind of co-operative learning techniques as Success for All.

Year Five teacher Louise Granger is enthusiastic. "It gets them talking about maths. If one child has to explain how they got their answer, it puts into words how they solved the problem." Jennifer, 10, agrees. "If you share ideas it's better than having just one brain."

In another room, three Year One pupils and a Year Six pupil are going over a story they have read. Children are being encouraged to talk to their partners as they try to remember what happened in it. The older boy, newly arrived in England, is soaking up the language at the right, basic level for his current ability, but will soon move on.

"The reason we use it, is because it accelerates learning," says Salewski. "If you are teaching something to someone else, you have to have understood it first. And it develops their language.

"It also gives them life skills. They are going to have to get on with all sorts of people, so this is good."

Salewski needs plenty of rooms and spaces for the different groups to work. And teachers and teaching assistants need support and training. "But they get to know more kids by doing it, which they really like."

She finds that the American-developed programme doesn't always fit neatly with the national curriculum. "You have to make it your own. But everyone here is really happy with it."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape