Blue skies and critical insights

December 4, 1998

Dross, second-rate, gobbledegook, hot, hot, hot! New assessment categories, perhaps, for educational research (THES, November )? In Phil Baty's feature one of my recent papers was described as "small-scale, non-empirical and ill-founded". These are curious charges. Particularly the first two, since they are explicitly acknowledged in the paper itself, which "addresses only the edges of a major critical study" and attempts merely "to synthesise insights and speculative work from a number of disciplines". These, it makes clear, "should be tested by empirical research".

As for being "ill-founded", I prefer to leave that question to those who might be led to read the paper. Tooley makes three specific charges: that the review of the literature was inadequate; that the controversial nature of statements was not acknowledged; and that they were introduced without sufficient justification.

1. The paper is not, as Tooley states, an "exegesis of Conservative government policy" but an exploration of the social and educational consequences of attempts to introduce new forms of organisation and resource allocation.

2. The Plowden report is referred to as "unchallenged" because of what is then stated as its "central achievement", namely "recognition that educational success and failure among children are inseparably linked to a child's social, economic and cultural environment". This statement is no longer "controversial".

3. The paper also examines critically some neo-liberal arguments for "freedom of choice" when applied to school reform. The controversial nature of the arguments is considered in two later sections, which show how more competition and "freedom of choice" in schools may increase inequality and lead to a more stratified distribution of educational benefits.

My paper was intended to inform debate and refine our understanding of recent developments in school organisation. Tooley's selection and application of criteria were inappropriate. He disregarded the context of enquiry.

We must now, presumably, prepare for the next RAE by trying to construct a more illuminating basis for classification and assessment of education research.

Michael Strain Education research University of Ulster

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