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.”[i]

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.[ii] 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.

[i] The well-known quote, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” comes from the 2007 McKinsey report, How the World’s Best Performing Education Systems Come Out on Top, but a footnote reveals the quotation actually attributed from an unnamed South Korean government official.

[ii] Made up numbers alert!