What makes teaching successful? Jesus Fellow reveals the importance of relationships in primary and early education.

Professor Iram Siraj OBE is the author of a number of influential works on early childhood education. In addition to her academic roles, she was a founding member and editor of the International Journal of Early Childhood Education and is on the editorial board of a number of other refereed journals including the American Educational Research Journal.  A Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Professor Siraj was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to early childhood education.  

How did you come to be at Jesus College?

I originally trained as a teacher, and taught in primary and nursery schools before completing a Master’s Degree in British Social History at Essex University and then a PhD in Education at the University of Warwick. I have held academic positions at Warwick and at University College London, and visiting professorships in Hong Kong, China, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Wales before coming to Oxford in 2018 to take up the position of Professor of Child Development and Education.

Briefly explain your current research

Most of my work is with primary and preschool school children and I am especially interested in how experiences in Early Years affect learning over the course of a lifetime.

My most recent publication is Teaching in Effective Primary Schools: Research into pedagogy and children's learning which examines what makes teaching successful based on detailed longitudinal research and observations in primary schools. We studied schools where outcomes and pedagogy were assessed as excellent, good or poor as defined by SATS results, reliable observational techniques and added value, and found that in order to make learning more engaging, it is important to have an emotional connection (relational pedagogy) with children and parents and to take their circumstances into account.  Regardless of background, the children who succeed are those who can speak to their parents and teachers - other factors are also important, but good relationships are vital.   

What are some of the key findings of your research?

A major project I was involved in was the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 1997-2015) study which was the largest of its kind, funded by the government in 1997 and costing around £11 million. It was a large-scale study following over 3,000 students for 17 years, from pre-school right until the end of their compulsory education. We combined quantitative assessment, looking at achievement and progress, with hundreds of hours of observation of classroom practices, and developed this into a set of strategies for effective teaching. We also looked at how each stage - pre-school, primary, secondary and beyond, as well as the home learning environment and parenting - contributed to students’ subsequent achievements.

The study proved the importance of Early Years education on future success, even from pre-school stage, and led to a number of government interventions, including the provision of free, good quality pre-schooling for all three and four-year-olds and 40% of the most disadvantaged populations of 2 year olds in the UK.  

Why did you choose this topic?

I am passionate about the work. Education is a fascinating field of study and it is rewarding to make a positive difference, influencing education policies and practices for the benefit of future generations. I also think that because I have a background in teaching I am able to engage in translating research to policy makers and practitioners to answer the questions that people on the ground, who are doing the job, really need to know. 

What other projects are you working on?

I am involved in a number of international projects. I work with the OECD developing international assessments - recently the International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study assessing five-year-olds to compare how children across a number of OECD countries are developing. With small children, it is important not to have a narrow focus, you must look at all the factors that influence them: social, emotional, cognitive and physical. We have also devised innovative measures to assess empathy and trust.

I am also working with other leading scholars from Cambridge, Hong Kong and the United States on a project for the World Bank, who are funding projects worldwide to establish better frameworks for early childhood education and care, which they want to encourage policy makers and governments to adopt. Investment in early education, especially with disadvantaged groups of children, leads to significant results which impact human development and therefore the economy, creating more productive members of society - the project is going to have a huge global impact.

What are some of the additional impacts of your work?

I advise governments worldwide on education, and my research publications have been translated into 30 different languages. I am currently working with the Minister for Education and his department in South Australia where they are reconfiguring their education system. The reliable quality rating scales that we have created from our research are being used in pre-school centres, for instance just one chain of not-for-profit preschools will be using these to improve quality in over 670 pre-schools, influencing 15,000 staff and 73,000 families in Australia.  

I am also very involved with the Ministerial Advisory Group in Wales and have worked with them on evaluating implementation at the Early Years Foundation Phase, which in wales straddles early years and primary, ages 3-7. In Scotland, I have worked with the Scottish Government to review their workforce needs and suggested compulsory training for primary Head Teachers, and 120 schools have been through the training so far. 

Outside of my professional research, I also helped to set up a school in Zambia called the Makwashi School, which has grown hugely in the last 10 years and is transforming a whole community outside Lusaka.  I have been out to Zambia to train and support the teachers, and raised money for facilities including pre-school and secondary classrooms, showers, toilets (especially for girls) and teachers’ accommodation so that they didn’t have to walk miles each day to and from work. Families who can afford to contribute pay a little, but the rest of the money comes from donations and fundraising. In recent years they have also set up a computer laboratory and a great library. The children (girls and boys) do well there and some have won scholarships overseas. 

What will you be exploring in future research projects?

One of the major developments over the last 15 years has been in the field of technology and artificial intelligence, and we must recognise this. Today’s children will enter the workforce in 2035 and we need to consider what their world will be like. As well as the basics of literacy and numeracy, they will need a whole new set of skills, and they will have to understand how to function in new environments.  

We were once an information-poor society but now, with the internet, the amount of information available is growing every year and children need to learn how to be flexible and independent thinkers, to be able to make informed decisions and to discriminate between what information is valid and worth learning. So I am expecting to explore some of these developments in my future work, including the increasing need for children to be able to concentrate and persevere in a world of proliferating information and technology.

Welcome to our Meet the Fellows section, where we profile some of our Jesus College Fellows and highlight the fascinating research they are working on. For a full list of Jesus College Fellows and Lecturers, please see here.