The answer is a great deal, according to MulitiLit senior research fellow Dr Jennifer Buckingham, whose Churchill Fellowship report has shed light on what great systems are doing well – and what happens when policy veers away from evidence-based practice. 

SD: Thanks for joining us Jennifer, your Churchill Fellowship report charting your on-the-ground investigation into literacy instruction and policy in the UK and Ireland has just been released  how would you describe the entire research experience? 

JB: It was a brilliant experience. I mean, there’s a lot you can learn through reading documents and emailing and having zoom conversations … but there’s absolutely nothing like actually visiting people, certainly on-site in schools, and having those opportunities for face-to-face interactions – just those sort of incidental conversations that you glean so much information from, that you can’t just do in a structured interview-type scenario. 

It was extremely valuable. And that’s why the Churchill Fellowships are so popular. They provide so much additional information that you can really only get if you’re travelling,

You highlight the widely divergent approaches to literacy policy and practice across the countries you visited. What were some of the key differences? And really what can Australia learn from this?

Well, there are big differences in all of the key factors that contribute to educational outcomes. So, there are differences in the form and the delivery of initial teacher education – it’s starting from that point. 

There are big differences in terms of the curriculum, how prescriptive policies are in terms of the way teachers teach reading, there are differences in terms of the approach to learning English literacy in particular. 

Assessment is different. Each country has an inspectorate, but the approach to inspection is different as well. 

The factors are the same in each country, it’s just that the way that they are enacted is different. And so, you get these very, very different results in terms of literacy performance in international assessments.

Which country stood out to you as being the most evidence-based in terms of its approach to literacy, instruction and policy?

Historically, Ireland. The fact that Ireland has had persistently high literacy performance in international assessment over two decades, tells you they’re doing something right.  

They have not seen the wide swing in terms of literacy policy and practice that we’ve seen in Australia, and in the UK countries. 

They’ve just provided really solid instruction, particularly in phonics in the early years in school, but in all aspects of literacy.

And it’s not necessarily that they’ve spent a lot more time teaching literacy than other countries, they have just been able to provide a consistent level of high-quality teaching. 

There are some other things going on there – there’s a culture that really values literacy, and a lot of parental involvement in education.

So, there are some external factors as well, but that commitment to really high quality instruction goes from ITE, right the way though curriculum, government policies, assessment, all the things that you would point to as being very likely to impact literacy performance are there. 

More recently, England has made some really big shifts in terms of their policies, and becoming much more prescriptive about evidence-based instruction.

The curriculum has become more aligned with evidence-based approaches, and Ofsted (the UK’s Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) has come up with some really strong frameworks and guidance around what is effective teaching and what they’re looking for. 

So that’s sort of been a process over the last 10 years. It takes a while for a country, particularly that’s so populace, to see changes in results.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham urges school leaders and policymakers to "keep their eye on those factors that are so important, and to not be distracted by (those things with) marginal impact".

  Did you notice anything different around the morale of teachers and school leaders in Ireland in the UK? 

I think, in Ireland, there was a real sense of stability. They’ve been fortunate to have that fairly stable approach that’s been successful. While there have been a few changes, there’s nothing that’s been especially dramatic.

And when they do have reviews and inquiries, they do them over quite a long period of time. So, you don’t see that really fast cycle of reform that other countries have seen.

I did notice a bit of reform fatigue in England, but that’s natural, I think, when there’s been a set of significant changes. But there are also other things that have been going on in England at the same time: cultural shifts, social changes.

So, I don’t think you can necessarily put everything that goes on in schools down to things that come from the Department of Education, for example. Schools are affected by everything that goes on in a society.

You mention that Wales have strong leaning to policy based on inquiry approaches to learning, and this is reflected in their international literacy performance. What is going on here? And do you see Wales following the path taken by Scotland?

Wales embarked on some curriculum reforms as well, but they have been moving more towards the Scottish approach, a less directive approach towards what schools do, and that was something that wasn’t a surprise, given that the person who led the curriculum in Wales, was the same person who led the curriculum development – or at least provided strong guidance on it – in Scotland. 

So, they take a very different approach to England. It’s interesting, given that the English approach seems to be paying off. 

They didn’t seem to look to Ireland, it’s a curious thing of all places. Scotland is not, according to PISA results, certainly not at the bottom, but I would have thought that it would be natural to look to countries where performance has been increasing or where performance has been high for a period of time. 

This is something that really intrigued me, and that I was curious about talking to people about while I was there, that the countries are so close to each other and have such different approaches in terms of education. 

[If you look at the policies and outcomes of others] you have a bit of a glimpse into the future. If you look around, it’s a bit of an experiment. 

You can say, ‘what are those countries doing that are so close to us, and what sort of effect is that having, and which is the direction of travel that we should be looking to go?’

There is not a lot of knowledge in the various countries about what’s going on with their neighbours. 

And I realised that, particularly with Ireland and Northern Ireland, having really high PIRLS scores for such a long period of time, there didn’t seem to be a lot of understanding outright about why that might be, and how those sorts of lessons could be emulated. 

But one thing I did find, which wasn’t a surprise, is that in every school that I visited, that teaches were there just trying to do their best. That has been an absolutely common experience – and really hard-working principals.

Their ability to get those great results is hampered by the decisions that are made at a policy level. And again – no one ever sets out to come up with a policy that’s not going to be effective. 

So, it’s that decision making process: ‘is this based on good quantitative evidence about what is going to achieve results for all students? What has been the experience in other countries? What can we expect to happen if we do this here?’

Sometimes that wasn’t as obvious in those decisions as I thought it should be. 

What do you hope Australian policymakers, school leaders and teachers will take away from your findings? 

To keep their eye on those factors that are so important, and to not be distracted by (those things with) marginal impact.  

Keeping our focus on high quality ITE education, how we go about improving that.  

Making sure that the curriculum is very much informed by evidence, and it contains that context that children need to know, and that policies are informed by evidence – these are big things that will really make a difference. It’s so easy to get diverted by other things. 

There certainly are things outside of the school environment that schools don’t have any control over, but then they’ll be impacted by it, of course, they need to be aware of that. 

But in the end, there are a limited number of big things, that if you keep working on those, then you know that the likelihood is greater that student achievement will improve.