In the mid-1990s, inspired by the recent rise of Evidence-Based Medicine, and by the perception of a lack of alignment between educational practice and policy with the best available evidence, a small group of educational researchers, policy makers and practitioners began to argue for ‘Evidence-Based Education’ (EBE). Researchers at CEM were a key part of that group and the support of the use of evidence and a scientific approach is a central element of CEM’s wider philosophy.
Some of the early history and background to the growth of EBE can be found in a paper by Coe, Fitz-Gibbon and Tymms on ‘Promoting Evidence-Based Education: The Role of Practitioners’ presented at the BERA conference in 2000. Similarly, the 1999 Manifesto for Evidence Based Education by Rob Coe sets out some of the arguments for, and limitations of, the use of evidence to inform decisions about practice and policy in education.
In 1997 Professor Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon, then Director of CEM, organised the first international, interdisciplinary conference on Evidence-Based Policies and Indicator Systems in Durham. The second conference, also in Durham, took place in 1999, with a third in 2001. In 2003 and 2006 the conference was organised jointly by CEM and the UK Government’s Cabinet Office and held in London. Some excellent papers from this series of conferences can be found here. The baton was then taken up by a conference on Randomised Controlled Trials in the Social Sciences, organised by the University of York between 2006 and 2012, and held in Durham in 2013. By that time, two of the key people who had originally set up the conference, Carole Torgerson and Stephen Gorard, had both moved to be professors in the School of Education at Durham.
In the UK in the late 1990s there seemed to be growing interest in making better use of research evidence in government. Under Education Secretary David Blunkett, the government funded initiatives such as the Institute of Education’s EPPI-Centre to conduct systematic reviews and the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. However, the mainstream educational research community continued to have significant reservations about the use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to tell us ‘what works’.
A major initiative of the coalition government of 2010 was the creation of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The EEF was given £125m to support research and dissemination aimed at ‘breaking the link between family income and educational achievement’ by raising the attainment of children facing disadvantage. Crucially, the EEF was committed to using the best existing evidence about the impact of different approaches to select trial projects to fund, and then apply rigorous standards of evaluation to them. In practice, this means that most of their projects are evaluated through RCTs by independent evaluators. Although some resistance to RCTs remains, the availability of large amounts of funding has allowed RCTs to happen on a big scale and the strength of that resistance seems to be weakening.
Even before the EEF was established, Durham School of Education/CEM researchers Steve Higgins, Rob Coe and Dimitra Kokotsaki had started working with the Sutton Trust to produce a simple and accessible summary for teachers of existing evidence about what school and classroom interventions make most difference to learning. This guide became the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and is now a key element of the EEF’s strategy in promoting effective Pupil Premium spending and identifying promising projects to fund. A 2013 survey found that 36% of schools leaders in England were using the Toolkit to inform their spending decisions.