Analysis: Policy fends off politics

April 12, 2001

Why have moves to establish a national strategy for education research caused uproar? Alison Utley finds out

Britain's national strategy for research in education is at the final-draft stage. It is an apparently commonsense solution to the problem of making academic research relevant to the real world. But the proposals have caused uproar among specialists, who are determined to overturn them.

The drive towards evidence-based theory comes from the National Education Research Forum (Nerf), which was not prepared for the strength of feeling aroused late last year by its consultation document.

It could not have imagined that moves to make education research more scientific and more closely linked to the profession would be condemned as a philosophically bankrupt mechanism for censorship. Worse still, it was said that the proposals would lead to a decline in the quality of education research in British universities.

Until now, Britain has managed without a national strategy for research and development in education, but because of changes such as the advent of lifelong learning, digital technology and altered demographics, Nerf was set up by the government to compose such a strategy.

The central idea seems to be uncontentious: to make education research relevant to education and to make it a sound basis for decision-making.

Nerf stated: "The success of research and development will be measured by the extent to which education services reflect the use of research outcomes."

But its ambitions go further. In its final strategy document to be published before summer, Nerf will set out to influence not only research priorities but also how research questions are formulated, the way research projects are funded and the way results are analysed and interpreted. This broad remit has made many education specialists uneasy.

Sir Michael Peckham, chair of Nerf and director of the School of Public Policy at University College London, insists that the strategy will not be a straitjacket, but an enabling tool. "Our intention is not just to correct problems - although there are some - but to anticipate the future and effect fundamental changes."

There has been a lack of coherence in education research, which, he said, had reduced its impact.

Ian Stronach, research professor at Manchester Metropolitan's Institute of Education, agrees that Britain's education policy has been influenced by education research only sporadically. More often, he believes, populist ideologies have dominated the education agenda, resulting in cycles of moral panic and policy hysteria.

However, he blames the government and the media for this rather than the education research community, which, he said, had often foolishly followed the government and media lead through a succession of ill-considered initiatives.

An education research forum must therefore be a useful innovation if it can establish a more evidence-based culture.

So far, so good. But the idea collapses thereafter because, according to Professor Stronach, Nerf has misunderstood the term education, which it treats as a simple instrument leading to things such as prosperity and inventiveness. Ironically, Nerf's strategy for education research failed to offer any research basis for its assumptions, Professor Stronach said.

"They offer a philosophically bankrupt view of education and, in self-contradiction, they acknowledge that research must help clarify and contribute to public debate about the nature and purpose of education but they foreclose on that debate by defining the nature and purpose of education. Wrongly."

The first principle Nerf must grasp if it is to gain credibility, critics say, is that any evidence-based policy means "you too". Many applaud making more use of research to inform policy and practice. What they dispute is the way Nerf is going about it.

Phil Hodkinson, professor of lifelong learning at Leeds University, described Nerf's strategy as worrying, although he is sympathetic to its aims. "If the proposals were introduced successfully they would undermine academic freedom, leading to a decline in the quality of education research in the UK," he said.

For Professor Hodkinson, the proposals amount to centralised control. Education is a highly political activity, which means that policy is strongly influenced by the priorities of government. Those priorities, Professor Hodkinson stresses, are often partisan.

"In a democracy, it is important that a significant part of education research is free to investigate issues that lie outside, or even directly counter to, those political priorities," he said.

Academics at London's Institute of Education agree. In a response to Nerf's consultation document, they wrote: "This glosses over the diverse and contested nature of education research and ignores the political and professional imperatives that can militate against policy-makers and practitioners applying research findings to their practices."

Furthermore, said Professor Hodkinson, the idea of establishing agreed criteria for the design and conduct of education research to improve quality was unworkable: "Ways of determining the quality of education research are strongly contested. If criteria are produced that do not have universal agreement, researchers will attempt to circumvent those they see as impeding their work."

The impact on funding of research would be disastrous, he believes, because of four key elements of the strategy:

  • The attempt to establish agreed criteria for research quality
  • The attempt to ensure that these criteria are followed by researchers, funders and journal editors
  • The desire to bring all educational research funders into common accord
  • The intention to exert the influence of Nerf on all aspects of education research, including priorities, publication and research training, as well as the design and conduct of the research.

It would be difficult, Professor Hodkinson said, for researchers to find funding or publishing outlets for research that did not meet the criteria. The education research field would become unable to adopt new approaches or ideas.

Not so, protests Chris Grey of Cambridge University's Judge Institute of Management and chair of the Nerf working group on quality of research. "We are simply trying to find a way of making education research more credible," he said. "Some pieces of work are not of the standard they ought to be. What we are opening up is a well-informed debate about the nature and purposes of education. The last thing we are doing is closing any avenues."

The British Education Research Association has reacted with caution. Its main concern is to raise the funding of education research from the pitiful 0.2 per cent of the national education budget: "Yes the United Kingdom needs a strategy for enhancing systematic, critical and creative inquiry into education and for ensuring that its researchers are free to ask questions and publish findings. But the strategy should also ensure that politicians and public learn to respect and to use research evidence as the best way of developing policy."

Most observers agree that a strategy for making education research more useful at the chalkface would be a good thing. But, as John Kanefsky, assistant director of the teaching and learning research programme, said, a utilitarian-driven agenda risked swamping high-quality research.

"Instead of getting bogged down in fruitless arguments about paradigms - is education an art or a craft or a science? - we need to concentrate on raising attainment at all levels in education, and that does not just mean exam results. If we prioritised research that aims to raise attainment, we would not be going far wrong."

STRATEGY MATTERS

Proposals for a national strategy for research in education:

  • Create quality standards agreed by funding bodies, journal editors, researchers and practitioners based on fitness for purpose, originality, rigour, transparency and accessibility
  • Devise a method of analysing research results and identifying gaps in knowledge
  • Build a capacity to identify longer term research requirements and global trends
  • Develop a process to set research priorities through a common forum of academics, policy-makers and practitioners
  • Create a methodology for measuring the effects of applying research
  • Establish an education research funders' group to encourage coherence in the allocation of funding
  • Extend opportunities for teachers to participate in research
  • Provide teachers with access to research findings.

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