A concerted offensive in quango land?

April 3, 1998

Attacks on educational research by education officials and quangos such as Ofsted must stop, argues Peter Mortimore

WHY is educational research being attacked? Is it significantly worse than research in other fields or are the attacks more a symptom of political or personal prejudice? Of course, educational research is not without its faults, as many researchers have themselves noted. I am highly critical of some of the publications I read. But I recognise both the validity of different approaches and the reality that all academic fields produce work of variable quality.

The Department for Education and Employment, after establishing a working party to look at its own management of research, has commissioned a study on the "quality and impact of educational research". Its remit contained a misleading and damaging reference to the performance of the field of education in universities and colleges in the last research assessment exercise.

The Office for Standards in Education has commissioned its own review and, as a prelude to its publication, its chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, wrote a highly critical article about the quality and value of educational research (New Statesman, March 20).

These attacks have a precedent. In the 1980s Sir Keith Joseph's dislike of the social sciences forced the renaming of the Social Sciences Research Council as the Economic and Social Research Council. His fear of political indoctrination led to civil servants combing through Open University course books in search of leftwing bias.

Of course research should be subject to review and questioning the value for money of research grants is perfectly acceptable provided that this is done fairly by appropriately qualified people. The current focus, however, gives the impression of a concerted attack especially when viewed alongside a parallel disparagement of teacher education.

It is possible to explain the attack on educational research on the grounds that some people working in the education service simply do not understand the aims of research and have no sympathy with the process. They fail to appreciate the importance of data being collected systematically, analysed appropriately and interpreted impartially. They do not recognise the role of theory in illuminating findings and relating them to other work. They see little value in discussions of how the research process might be made more transparent and replicable.

For people untrained in research methods, agonising over issues of reliability and validity and issuing caveats on the limits of the research may seem a waste of time but, for those of us who work in the field, it is a vital safeguard against the potential abuse of our findings.

Researchers have been trained to ask questions rather than to take things on trust. They evaluate official reports and publish critical comments.

My colleague Harvey Goldstein and I, for example, scrutinised the Ofsted evaluation of reading in three London boroughs and found it misleading and methodologically inept. Official bodies - like educational researchers - can be fallible.

I have worked in educational research for more than 20 years and I know well the contribution to policy and practice made by many of my colleagues. For six years I directed the renowned Inner London Research and Statistics Unit. We were charged with carrying out the routine statistical analyses of that large pioneering authority and with undertaking research intended to be useful both to the members of the authority in their policy-making and to the practice of the heads and teachers in the schools. The benefit of this work - not just to the ILEA but to policy-makers and practitioners in this country and abroad - has been widely recognised.

School Matters, a longitudinal study of primary education, for instance, provides the intellectual basis for many of the subsequent school effectiveness and improvement projects that have been adopted by governments in many different countries. The value of this study and all the other work, however, rests on its acceptance by expert peers and by informed practitioners as high-quality research.

As a profession, educational research must recognise the need for external evaluation and remain constantly self-critical. There is no room for over-defensiveness or complacency. Criticism, however, must be informed and objective. It should not be based on personal prejudice or vague generalisations or be motivated by political considerations.

I fear that attacks on educational research, such as we are witnessing, are not simply the product of naivety but a manifestation of an insecurity that resists challenge or criticism and wishes to inhibit dissenting voices. I hope, however, that our democracy is sufficiently mature and robust to recognise and withstand such tactics. After all, academic freedom exists to protect society and not simply its academic researchers.

Peter Mortimore is director of the Institute of Education, University of London.

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