Dross, second rate, gobbledegook

November 27, 1998

This is how Richard Pring, James Tooley and Alan Smithers describe much educational research. So what is good research? We look at who's hot and who's not.

The research pouring out of university departments of education is blighted by a proliferation of "dross that should never have seen the light of day", says Oxford professor Richard Pring. Half of what is published is "second rate", says Newcastle professor James Tooley, after a study of the top research journals in the field. Much is "gobbledegook", says Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University.

As the extraordinary attacks on the education research establishment from its own ranks have snowballed, ministers, determined to raise standards in schools - and keen to get their hands on research that can tell them how - have been listening intently.

The chorus of criticism is not just coming from a handful of education professors. Policy-shapers too are fed up with what they see as a waste of Pounds 65 million of taxpayers' money a year. Most research carried out by university education researchers is a "useless" waste of public money, says Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead. Much is "irrelevant", says David Hargreaves, head of the government's numeracy task force. University education departments need "root and branch" restructuring, says Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education's standards unit.

Ministers are starting to act. Education secretary David Blunkett has urged a clampdown on research that is not closely related to improving schoolchildren's exam results, while higher education minister Tessa Blackstone has called for "more emphasis on spreading findings so that teachers know what works".

As a first step the government has commissioned feasibility studies into concentrating taxpayers' money on education research in no more than ten to 20 universities and colleges. Second, it is considering wresting research from the hands of academics and empowering school-teachers themselves as researchers.

So, no more studies like Geoff Trowman's revelation in the British Education Research Journal in 1996 that school-teachers do not like being used by researchers as guinea pigs, which was rubbished by Tooley's critique of research as unable to "contribute to the educational research endeavour in any useful way". Or like Audrey Osler's 1994 paper for the Oxford Review of Education about the representation of women in school history textbooks, where "boys don't seem to matter at all", according to Tooley.

Tooley was particularly critical of John Shepherd who, in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, said that those opposed to introducing music to the national curriculum were all Tory politicians. As well as coming down hard on work that was deemed irrelevant, politically correct, partisan or just simply incomprehensible, Tooley attacked research for being methodologically flawed.

But the practice of education research also faces difficulties. When the government asked Sussex University's Institute of Employment Studies to report on the state of education research nationally it found that a lot of the research was too fragmented. The report's author, Jim Hillage, says:

"There are 3,000 educational researchers in university education departments and teacher training colleges. Too much of what they do is small scale, lacks rigour and does not advance knowledge." The report says:

"The burgeoning forest of academic research papers appears to be increasingly impenetrable to an academic audience, let alone to the wider education community."

What is needed, says Hillage, is a National Education Research Forum - bringing together researchers, government agencies, and teachers themselves - to focus attention on the big policy picture and avoid duplication. The government also wants teachers themselves to help academics set the research agenda, ensuring that research is focused on the experiences of teachers on the front line. Many educationists are understandably furious at these moves. They have dismissed Tooley's study of just 41 education journals as biased and flawed. They have vilified Woodhead, Barber and Hargreaves as "folk devils" and have accused the government of twisting the messages from Hillage's report to suit itself.

For the proposed changes threaten academics' freedom to do the kind of research they want, imposing on them instead a narrow agenda tied to the needs of school-teachers. "The government plans to concentrate resources in fewer universities and to link it with its school standards drive," says Michael Bassey, executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association. "The fear is that research might become exclusively focused just on what the government wants, and that the findings will be linked to its own agenda. Academics should be free to - even obliged to - challenge things."

As David Halpin, professor of education at Goldsmiths College, and an editor of one of the much-derided journals of education research, has it:

"What I and other journal editors help to publish is designed to inform debate and help to refine people's intelligence about particular issues in education, not to provide teachers with 'tips for Monday morning'."

WHO'S HOT

DAVID HARGREAVES

Often blamed for sparking the row about education research. In a 1996 Teacher Training Agency lecture he said that much educational research is "of little relevance to improving classroom practice (and is) often taken up with fashionable methodological quarrels, baffling to anyone outside the academic community". Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University, is a member of the government's standards task force. He has advocated "learning in doing" whereby more young people should be encouraged into traditional, work-based apprenticeships and out of full-time education.

DAVID REYNOLDS

Head of the numeracy task force, professor of education at Newcastle University and celebrated traditionalist, a back-to-basics man renowned for his scrutiny of how children in Taiwan are taught using old-fashioned methods. His research led him to support vociferously formal whole-class teaching.

But his view is modified into a new Labour-friendly "interactive" version where pupils sit in a horseshoe shape with the teacher as the focal point.

Reynolds resents being labelled a traditionalist - "what's traditionalist about wanting a system in which everyone is able to read, write and add up? It is profoundly socialist".

PAMELA LOMAX

Some academics are embracing the idea of the teacher as researcher. At Kingston University, Pamela Lomax, working with Moyra Evans at Denbigh School, offers a masters degree in action research to the "Denbigh School Action Research Group". Teacher, Helen Morgan has produced two research reports. She sent a questionnaire to sixth-form students about what motivated them.

ROBIN ALEXANDER

Board member of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and director of the centre for research into elementary and primary education at Warwick University, he is a former Tory government advisor, best known for being one of the traditionalist "three wise men".

Alexander, Chris Woodhead and Jim Rose earned the tag after the publication in 1992 of their report criticising progressive teaching methods which gave the media an empirical base to attack "trendy teachers".

But last year he attacked Woodhead, saying it was wrong to brand "progressive" primary teaching as "the principal culprit in this country's educational failure".

Ted Wragg (But only just).

Professor of education at Exeter and board member of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Wragg is uncomfortable with Reynolds's ideas and believes the debate should not be polarised between traditional whole-class teaching and progressive small-group work.

He has robustly defended much of the work attacked by Tooley, Woodhead et al.

WHO'S NOT

ANDREW SPARKES

of Exeter University. Just the sort of researcher people like David Hargreaves does not like. Sparkes was thrust into the limelight earlier this year when his 1994 paper for the British Journal of Sociology of Education was pilloried by James Tooley as being flawed and partisan.

Sparkes'spaper, said Tooley, explores the life experiences of just one "white, able-bodied, middle-class, lesbian PE teacher in her late 20s". He sets outto "illustrate the oppression under which she lives", said Tooley, but "hardly anything is related that could possibly qualify as homophobia and oppression".

MICHAEL STRAIN

of the University of Ulster. Another researcher thrust into thelimelight after being singled out byTooley. His 1995 paper for theBritish Journal of Educational Studies, "Autonomy, Schools and the Constitutive Roleof Community", was said to typify small-scale, non-empirical, ill-founded work.

Strain explains Tory government education policy. But, said Tooley, "his argument suggests an inadequate literature review, failure to acknowledge controversy behind statements and the need to justify controversial positions."

Tooley takes exception to Strain's statement that the 1967 Plowden report, which transformed the face of primary education and ultimately led to the rows over trendy teaching, "remains one of the most unchallenged educational documents to have been commissioned and accepted by a national government in the 20th century". "There is," said Tooley, "a large literature challenging it."

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