Alan Smithers: a common-sense voice, or educational rent-a-quote?

The Buckingham education professor’s musings on educational decline are a mainstay of the British press. But is academia right to be dismissive of his views and unusual modus operandi?

January 28, 2020

To his critics, Alan Smithers is a reactionary rent-a-quote used to prop up flimsy stories decrying the decline of British education standards.

For others, he is an unwavering voice of common sense among the left-wing ideologues who dominate education research.

Either way, the 81-year-old director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research remains a near-ubiquitous presence in today’s higher education debate thanks to his regular commentary in The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and other parts of the UK’s right-leaning press. Earlier this month Mary Curnock Cook, the former Ucas chief executive, implored “responsible journos to seek a new source for quotes on HE issues”.

But the veteran scholar – now in his sixth decade of education punditry – may be about for some time yet, telling Times Higher Education that he had no plans to retire. “I don’t feel 80 nor any different to when I was 50, so I’ll hopefully keep going,” he said.

He will, however, “reduce the amount of research” he conducts and instead seek to distil some of the observations accumulated since he entered education research in the mid-1960s while a plant scientist at the University of London.

Critics of his prolific commentary will probably ask how much will really change; Professor Smithers’ last higher education research papers were self-published in 2015 (he releases annual reports on trends in GCSE and A-level results, plus the most recent edition of The Good Teacher Training Guide in 2017) and he has avoided peer-reviewed publications, inviting accusations that his work is either superficial or simply polemic dressed as scholarship.

That charge misunderstood the nature of education research, countered Professor Smithers.

“When I was a botanist, I had many papers published, including in Nature, which made sense because I was adding to an established body of knowledge,” he said.

“Unlike scientific knowledge, which is relatively enduring, education research is transitory – if you wait 18 months for a peer-reviewed paper to come out, policy has moved on and it’s only really of historical interest.”

Instead, “narrative tends to be king” in education policy because empirical research can be easily disputed, Professor Smithers argued. “If you have a belief and enough enthusiasm, you can make it become true because the evidence presented [by critics] is normally not enough to constrain you,” he said.

To influence policy, academics or teachers, education researchers should therefore engage the media to get research findings out quickly, he believes.

He rejected, however, the claim that his punditry did little more than reflect the biases of right-leaning papers and their readers. “People have been interested in my work from all sections of the media – I’ve been a columnist for The Independent and Tes and been an informal adviser to Guardian and Financial Times leader writers,” he said.

Some of his ideas were even rejected by ministers as too progressive during the 1980s when he held education chairs at the universities of Liverpool and Manchester. “I advocated that all children should follow a common curriculum until the age of 14, when they should follow different pathways that played to their different vocational or academic strengths,” he said.

“That idea didn’t find favour, except curiously until [Lord] Kenneth Baker [education secretary under Margaret Thatcher] started the university technical colleges in 2010.” He admitted, however, that the initiative has struggled, with a National Audit Office report concluding in October that UTCs were more likely to be rated poorly by Ofsted than other schools, and that their pupils got worse grades.

Those who have sneered at Professor Smithers’ pronouncements over the years might consider that some of his oft-quoted concerns are now being taken seriously by the English sector’s new regulator, the Office for Students, which is today’s voice lamenting “spiralling grade inflation”. Another of Professor Smithers’ bugbears – over-recruitment by universities – is also gaining traction. Does he feel vindicated?

“There is no doubt that GCSE, A-level and degree scores are going up and more students are getting top grades,” said Professor Smithers. “I have long advocated having a grade above a first, which would allow you to distinguish high-level performance,” he added of the system that now sees 28 per cent of graduates leave with a top mark.

With a new book on policy nearing completion, it’s likely that the sector will be hearing a lot more from Professor Smithers, whether it likes it or not.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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