Teaching matters, but there are more important things to get right

//Teaching matters, but there are more important things to get right

As John Tomsett says in his latest blog, “It is generally accepted that the quality of teaching is the most influential factor in determining the rate at which pupils make progress in their learning – broadly speaking, the better the teaching, the more progress pupils make over time.”

Here, I want to argue that teaching, important as it is, only comes third (or maybe fourth) on the list of things I think make the most difference “in determining the rate at which children make progress in their learning.” A bold claim? Let’s see.

My contention is that the single most important factor in determining children’s progress is the peer culture in their school. Contrary to what adults often believe, the goal of most children is not to become a successful adult but to be a successful child. The motivational bias towards gaining the approval of one’s peer group probably reaches its peak in the teenage years. Children work out with unerring accuracy what kind of behaviours gain approval and what sort of approach to school will result in the maximum of admiration and respect. In some schools, the prevailing peer culture is that working hard and being academically successful is social suicide; in others there is a deep and abiding belief that it’s cool to work hard and academic success is valued and celebrated.

Of course, finding yourself in one or other of these environments is not fate. There will always be some individuals prepared to defy social norms and plough their own, lonely furrow. I reckon that roughly 1 out of every 10 students will work hard and do the right thing, and another 1 out of 10 will find reasons to avoid hard work and gravitate towards mucking about whatever their prevailing peer culture. The other eight will tend to go with the consensus.* That is not to say that we should ignore these two students, but it does mean that if we can engineer the peer culture most conducive to academic success then most children will shuffle into line without much protest.

In an environment where students don’t value hard work and academic success, the effects of teaching, no matter how wonderful, are minimised, and in the opposite kind of environment, the effects of teaching, no matter how poor, are maximised. What this suggests is that not only will efforts to improve peer culture raise the effects of teaching, it will also result in an environment in which students are less tolerant of inadequate teaching because they are more interested in doing their best; good teaching starts to become a cultural norm, with poor teaching becoming increasingly exceptional. It should also be obvious that changing the peer culture will also shift behavioural norms. Teachers who might struggle to teach because of low expectations of student behaviour will find it much easier to teach when poor behaviour becomes isolated as culturally abnormal.

Peer culture tends to be more aligned to academic success in some schools because students come from backgrounds where education is prized. In schools with a larger proportion of students from backgrounds where this is not the case, school leaders have to work harder to make the cultural shifts necessary for academic success. This isn’t fair, but it is true. In some schools it’s unnecessary to have zero-tolerance approaches to low-level disruption because it’s rare. In other schools this isn’t the case. If you’re fortunate enough to work in a school where you have to work less hard to align peer culture with academic success, you should never look down on the efforts of those who lead schools where students can’t afford the luxury of being allowed to mess about. I written some ideas about changing peer culture and social norms here and here.

The second most important factor determining the rate at which pupils make progress is the curriculum. The quality of teaching will struggle to exceed the quality of the curriculum. You can take the most talented teacher with the best subject knowledge and their results will still be hampered if you then impose a curriculum that prioritises generic competencies or 21st century skills. We only become skilled or competent at thinking about things we know and know well. This is an argument I’ve rehashed again and again. If you want to explore my thoughts on the curriculum in more detail then I can recommend these posts:

If schools get the curriculum right, even weaker teachers will be more effective, but the best teachers will be astonishingly good.

The next most important factor is the quality of assessment that exists in a school. In too many schools, teachers don’t really know what their students know and what barriers they have to learning. The biggest invisible barrier to academic success is a lack of reading fluency. The DfE estimate that 20% of children leave primary school unable to fluently decode and are, therefore, unable to access an academic curriculum. But because almost no schools measure reading fluency, they have no idea whether students are capable of being academically successful. Arguably, changing peer culture will be impossible if some students are unable to read well enough to taken on the values we want them to espouse. There is almost no reason why a child cannot learn the relatively simple and small domain of phoneme/grapheme relationships required to read fluently, but if we don’t even know it’s an issue, they’re doomed. I’ve written more about this here.

There are all sorts of other routine absurdities that schools perpetrate in the name of assessment – a continued determination to persist with levels even when rebranded as things like ’emerging’ and ‘securing’, making up numbers, flight paths etc. – all of which work to prevent teachers doing the best possible job of teaching their students. Here‘s a list of ways to get assessment wrong. As Becky Allen has pointed out, if we can’t actually measure pupils’ progress, we need to think a lot more carefully about what our assessments are for. The point she makes is that even though we probably can’t measure progress in a way that is either reliable or valid, we can still say a lot about attainment. If schools bend their will towards meaningful assessment, teaching will, unsurprisingly, become a lot more effective.

With peer culture, curriculum and assessment sorted out, it is then probably fair to say that teaching is the next most influential factor in determining the rate at which pupils make progress in their learning. The quality of teaching in a school cannot exceed the quality of the peer culture, the curriculum or of assessment. Before school leaders commit their efforts to improving teaching, maybe they should check to make sure they’re solved these other, more pressing problems.

*Made up numbers alert! 

2018-07-08T12:33:42+00:00July 8th, 2018|Featured|


  1. Tom Burkard July 8, 2018 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    The quality of leadership trumps all of the factors you’ve listed.

    • David Didau July 8, 2018 at 2:47 pm - Reply

      Possibly. Trouble is “quality” is irrelevant if you’re concentrating on the wrong things. A focus on leadership can be as unhelpful and distracting as a focus on teaching. This is a list of what a leader must focus on. Clearly it helps if leadership is of high quality but if the sights are set correctly even less good leaders will be more effective.

      • Michael pye July 8, 2018 at 10:56 pm - Reply

        Having nearly finished Matt Ridley’s book I was interested in how you would answer that one.

  2. Valentino Salvato July 8, 2018 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    Dear David, I have been teaching in the UK since 2002 and I am now teaching in an International School in Asia. I have covered all the possible roles I could cover, up to part-time Acting Principal. I also have 5 postgraduate degrees, including a MA Leadership at the UCL IoE. Without any shadow of doubt, I can say that the PARENTS are the N.1 success factor! Unfortunately in the UK, bad parents and kids play the blame game against the school and the teaching staff and many times they are allowed to win by scared and inept school leaders. The UK system has been deconstructed and reconstructed to allow this to happen, to allow irresponsibility to win over professionalism, to allow people who don’t care about themselves and others to cause problems to people who care. My father was also a teacher and he taught me first and foremost that my job as a student is to be responsible for my learning (and for myself in general) and not to criticise, complain and blame (unless there is a real good reason for that). The UK Education system is fundamentally broken and teachers are simply insufficiently trained to cope with a broken system. No wonder so many burn out and leave. It’s not because they are not capable of doing their jobs anyway. It’s because the UK Government fails them. This is the blatant truth. Then those kids will become adults and will behave the way they have learnt in school: blame others and never take responsibility for themselves! That’s the kind of society that has been built over the last few decades and it’s a shame. Nothing will ever work in the UK despite all the honourable attempts by dedicated educators like yourself and enlightened school leaders. First and foremost, the culture has to change and only a good Government can do that by changing the laws in the right way and make everyone accountable for what they do and don’t do. Teachers are responsible for teaching and cannot learn for the students. Parents and students need to be held accountable for themselves and, if they fail, THEY FAIL. Not the teachers. This is the most educational outcome of all in life and should be the first thing to be implemented in any fair and meritocratic system. Unfortunately, the UK doesn’t have a fair and meritocratic society in general since there is an elitist approach to everything based on who can talk/persuade better than others…and not who can do better than others. That’s why we have all those politicians that just exercise their rhetorical skills on the media and then are utterly incapable to run the country. They have just been trained to talk. It’s all about bla bla bla and posh accents and no right facts. So, no wonder white working class parents and kids are not really motivated and ambitious. Politicians need to lead by example to inspire society at large to evolve and improve. I have studied tons of books on leadership but I have rarely found all those wonderful things in the real UK world. The true common definition of leadership in the UK is that one of “a bully with a bit of empathy”! I am not waiting for any of these things to improve any time soon, unfortunately. It takes usually three generations to change the culture of a society. So, I am now somewhere else enjoying the best job in the World: teaching!

    • Michael Pye July 8, 2018 at 11:02 pm - Reply

      Parents are hard for schools to change except by shifting cohorts. Focusing on them will likely just shift the problem students.

      That being said I think the homelife of students is high on the list of impactors on attainment if not the top. it’s just that directly focusing on this is unlikely to work. Sort everything else out and parents will see value in the school.

      • Valentino Salvato July 9, 2018 at 4:06 pm - Reply

        There are already lots of good things in schools that are destroyed by those parents and their kids. There are already lots of good teachers that have changed career because of those parents and kids. It’s now time to change culture and not to allow those poisonous snakes to ruin what caring and professional people are constructing for society’s sake. We don’t need to sell the importance of Education to any parent because any parent with a properly functioning brain understands that already. I teach now in a country where this is the case and almost any teacher can flourish and do pretty well in this kind of environment. No one has a burnout and teaching and learning are the norm in every lesson. That’s the difference that good parents make! Nobody can ignore the data of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis in the UK and it’s nothing new really. When I started to teach in the UK in 2002, I proudly said I was a teacher and the average answer to my legitimate pride was “you are crazy!” Now I can keep my legitimate pride as a teacher and just teach, which is what I like to do!

  3. Mark Featherstone-Witty July 8, 2018 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    David’s orginal blog and the two comments so far show how many factors play into what one might call success.

    (And it’s worth unpicking what ‘success’ means. For David, it’s only one kind: academic, as if nothing else existed, which seems strange for someone who spends serious time considering what learning is for. Success takes many forms … and it always did. To equate success with academia is a terrible mistake).

    I’m sympathetic with Valentino. Of course, parents are the bedrock … and then comes nursery and primary learning.

    And I’m not sure why David dismissed leadership. In my life, a giant was AS Neil who created and ran a spectactular school where youngsters were invited to govern themeselves and take responibility for their own actions. Lessons were voluntary. And as Neil pithily put it ‘We’ve not had any faliures … like younsgters who become prime ministers for instance.

    • David Didau July 8, 2018 at 6:05 pm - Reply

      For some reason you’re attempting to mischaracterise what I’ve said. Nowhere do I say that academic success is the only form of success. It might be a “terrible mistake” to “equate success with academia” but it’s not one I’ve made. My point is to equate academic success with succeeding academically. To do otherwise is a terrible mistake.

      Also, if you read my comment you’ll delete that I have not “dismissed” leadership. I have said it’s important. Here are my words: “Clearly it helps if leadership is of high quality but if the sights are set correctly even less good leaders will be more effective.” I’m intrigued as to how someone could conclude this is dismissive of leadership. But then, anyone who cites Neill as a great school leader is somewhat suspect. In this book it’s claimed that teachers exposed themselves to teach anatomy and encouraged young children to masturbate in order to cure their neuroses. Neill explicitly equated adult authority over children with child abuse. As such he disqualifies himself from being considered a good school leader.

  4. Jonathan Sobels July 9, 2018 at 2:49 am - Reply

    In the same way, adults will follow their peers’ behaviour and devision making.. For example, farming is a set of socially constructed practices, brought about in part by literally looking over the fence. Groups of farmers who participate in social learning will change behaviour more rapidly than individuals. It’s not so much the psychology of the individual child that determines learning progress but the sociology of the classroom… or office.

  5. […] I wrote a post explaining that important as the quality of teaching in a school is, there are other, more important things on which…. In response, Katharine Birbalsingh, head mistress of Michaela School tweeted […]

  6. Charles Brown July 27, 2018 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    It is generally accepted that the quality of teaching is the most influential factor in determining the rate at which pupils make progress in their learning broadly speaking, the better the teaching, the more progress pupils make over time.

    • David Didau July 27, 2018 at 5:20 pm - Reply

      The fact that a thing is “generally accepted” does not make it true.

  7. Bivhab Sarker August 24, 2018 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    To achieve academic success group work is essential. Only students or only teachers cannot achieve academic success. And leadership plays an important role to run a group. Another thing important thing is the quality of the assessment. A quality teacher knows how to teach the students. Many of the teachers do not know what are the students learning. To improve the students learning a good teacher is essential rather than it is not possible to get the academic success. Quality of teaching can enhance learning.

  8. Bivhab Sarker August 26, 2018 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    The quality of teaching is more important for students or institutions. To get academic success a quality teacher is most important. So every students need the quality teacher who can make the student understand and work hard to get success.

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