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Research School Network: The role of evidence in effective governance (And how to tackle a HIPPO!) The role of evidence in school improvement.

The role of evidence in effective governance (And how to tackle a HIPPO!)

The role of evidence in school improvement.

In this blog, Lorwyn Randall (Education Endowment Foundation) explores how the EEF's Guide for Governing Boards can help provide support and challenge to leaders around the role of evidence in school improvement.

Lorwyn Randall

The role of evidence in effective governance (And how to tackle a HIPPO!)

Back in October 2019, Leora Cruddas (Confederation of School Trusts) gave a compelling talk to leaders from across the Southwest on the crucial role of governance in the school-led system. In it she set out several questions about the features and importance of effective governance. Among the questions posed was What does the evidence say?

This question is particularly important given that, as she put it, we don’t pay enough attention to evidence in relation to governance.’

Fortunately, there is a growing evidence-base for governors to draw upon to help guide them in their role of supporting and challenging school leaders, particularly when it comes to raising the attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is important given the powerful role research-findings can play in helping to inform decision making and improving practice.

So, who is the HIPPO?

The HIPPO’ is a term that has become popular in the world of tech start-ups and big business. It refers to the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion’.

Companies are cautious not to be led blindly by the HIPPO and they create mechanisms and systems of governance for avoiding the potential pitfalls of such an approach. In meetings, it’s often said that the only thing that can challenge The HIPPO’ is the evidence. It is, after all, very unlikely to be a competing opinion!

Education isn’t like a tech start-up or big business, but it is similar in the sense that decisions can often be driven by opinion, bias or prejudice – conscious or unconscious. It is for this reason that evidence – objective and apolitical – should help to inform decision making as part of strong leadership and governance. The opinion of the HIPPO may be incredibly valuable, but if it goes unchallenged, this is likely to prove unhealthy in the long-term.

This is not to say that evidence replaces the knowledge and experience developed by school leaders over many years of working in schools within specific contexts; rather, it is at the point where evidence intersects with this practical wisdom that the profession – both leaders and governing boards – can become evidence-informed in their approach to school improvement.

With good evidence we can tackle the problem of being dominated by the HIPPO.

The Education Endowment Foundation

Since 2011 the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has been gathering and generating evidence of what works’ (and often what doesn’t). This growing evidence-base can help teachers and leaders make more informed, real-world decisions about best bets’ for their school or classroom. In Spotlight on Disadvantage’,
a report published by The National Governance Association in 2018, it was found that schools with the best progress outcomes for Disadvantaged Students made evidence-informed decisions. Conversely, schools that remained inward looking’ tended to favour internal data and the opinions of staff over external sources of data such as academic research and the EEF toolkit’[1]. The study found that these schools were more likely to struggle when it came to improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

Given these findings, it’s particularly important that governors are empowered with access to the evidence and an understanding of how it can be used to support and challenge school leadership. In addition to the Teaching & Learning Toolkit (sometimes described as the Which Magazine’ for education), the EEF has been busy producing a raft of Guidance Reports for schools on a variety of subjects and themes such as literacy, maths and behaviour. These set out clear, actionable and evidence-based recommendations for schools to explore and consider in relation to their own practices. Guidance Reports are a useful starting point for governors looking into specific areas of teaching and learning. However, there is something to be said for the popularity of the EEF’s 2018 Guidance Report Putting Evidence to Work – a School’s Guide to Implementation’. The appetite that exists for knowing how’ to embed an approach (process), not just what’ to embed (pedagogy), is telling. And governors can play a vital role in supporting a school’s processes around implementation.

Accessing the evidence and seeing beyond the HIPPO

Since 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation has been collating high quality evidence of what works’ and, in many cases, what doesn’t work. As well as the popular Teaching and Learning Toolkit, there have been guidance reports developed to offer summaries of the evidence in an accessible format, with specific practical guidance. Topics have included parental engagement, improving behaviour and more.

One of the most popular guidance reports for school leaders has been the guidance on effective implementation, entitled Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation’.

The report combines the best available research with the processes and practices of schools in England where strategies aren’t just launched’… they last. From this, six recommendations emerge (see below). Perhaps the most striking thing about these recommendations is how un-striking they are. They are, of course, common sense. But common sense is not always common practice in the hectic world of schools.

As a result of flawed implementation, many schools can fail in their attempts at school improvement. The opinions and insights of the HIPPO may prove valuable, but careful, systematic implementation will be key. The greatest challenge for schools, and governors, may be how we can do fewer things well in our attempts at school improvement.

The EEF’s Guide for Governing Boards gives practical advice for becoming an evidence-informed school governor and trustee organised around three questions:

How well are pupils achieving in your school?

How effectively is your school spending its money?

How does your school support effective teaching and learning?

It may not specify explicitly how to tackle a HIPPO, but it will prove a helpful guide nonetheless.

Lorwyn Randall is the Regional Delivery Lead for the Education Endowment Foundation in the South West & South Coast and (since Leora’s talk) is a governor at a school in Devon.

[1]Spotlight on Disadvantage’, 2018 T.Fellows, M.Barton, The National Governance Association (2018) Page 3

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