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Q&A with Professor Peter Blatchford

Peter Blatchford is Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education at IOE's Department of Psychology and Human Development.

What was your role at IOE?

I was Professor in Psychology and Education until my retirement in 2020. I am now Emeritus Professor in Psychology and Education. I had continuous research funding for 40 years to support several programmes of research - on class size, Teaching Assistants, collaborative group work, and peer relations in schools. I also taught at MA and doctoral level and was Head of my department from 2001-2003 and Acting Head in 2017.

And before that?

I actually left school at 16 and was a telephone engineer apprentice for two years before deciding I needed to change my career - this was after all the 1960s and there was change in the air - and decided to move on by doing A Levels at college in East Ham and then university - not common for children where I was brought up.

In 1981 I started a research post on a large scale ESRC study of pupil progress in inner London schools at the Thomas Coram Research Unit and apart from a brief period working on teacher training in 1989 I have been at IOE since - in what is now called the Department of Psychology and Human Development.

What's the most important thing you've learned from your students?

That a critical evaluation of what counts as evidence in research is vital - but it goes further than that. Many of our students work in schools and so the relevance of the findings for practice and policy also needs to be worked through.

Responsibility for what we find doesn't just stop with publication in journals."

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Teaching Assisstants

Once, we had some unexpected results from a project into the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff - it found that the more support pupils had from Teaching Assistants, the less progress they made. I was pleased with the way the team and I worked through all the observation, interview and questionnaire data to develop what has become an influential explanation for why Teaching Assistants can have a negative effect - and what we can then do about it.

After a talk I gave at the University of Melbourne the discussant praised us for the bravery shown. This is an unusual way of looking at research but in the early days it really felt we were challenging established ways of doing things, and there was a lot of initial resistance from policy makers, government and some in schools. But we were confident in the research and stood our ground. The important thing is what's best for children.

Rethinking class size

I am also pleased with the book ‘Rethinking Class Size: The Complex Story of Impact on Teaching and Learning’ which I wrote with Tony Russell, and published in 2020. In this book we drew together findings and conclusions from our several research projects on class size and showed that common ways of viewing class size – which are almost exclusively in terms of associations with pupil attainment – are too simplistic and miss the way class size in interconnected with teaching, classroom management, pupil relationships, the kinds of tasks set, and effects on teachers themselves.

If we don’t understand these connections, the interpretation of class size effects can be misguided. The book was published by UCL Press and is free to download.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list.

It's become apparent that commentary and policy on education – and I'm afraid much educational and psychological research - is more and more distant from children's and teacher's everyday classroom interactions and experiences.

Without up-to-date close observations of everyday classroom contextual features like the size and composition of within class groupings and types of tasks set, and what I call relational factors like relationships between teachers and pupils and pupils with each other, many proposed interventions may not work well.

It’s all very well being advised to adopt a particular approach, say group work or individual or small group tuition, but we also need to know whether the everyday classroom conditions support that intervention."

This also speaks to a wider problem I think. There is far too much tinkering by politicians with structures and assessment arrangement, when what’s required for educational policy I think is a deep understanding of how teaching and learning in classrooms works.

I received a Leverhulme funded Major Research Fellowship in 2017-2020, and used that time to integrate messages from my research and develop what I am calling an eco-relational approach to classroom learning – which recognises the classroom as a distinctive context for learning and development. I am now writing a book and papers on it.

In terms of future work: top of my list is closer attention to the semi-private world of peer relations in schools - we know so little about them but they have a huge role in filtering what the teacher says and on learning.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

It's not a surprise to my closest colleagues but I am a season ticket holder at West Ham United. I was born and went to school in Barking and played in the same football team as Trevor Brooking!

What other piece of research outside of your own subject area interests you?

I am fascinated by research on sleep and dreams. We all sleep and dream but their purpose and meaning is so mysterious.