Forging better research and policy links

September 4, 1998

Millions of pounds are spent on university research into raising standards in schools. So why isn't it happening? Jim Hillage suggests a way forward

"Do you really think research can influence government policy on education?" was perhaps the most surprising question I was asked at the recent British Education Research Association conference after speaking about our recent review of the quality of the research carried out in university departments of education.

It was interesting because it not only demonstrated how far the research and policy-making communities had drifted apart in recent years but also the challenge university researchers face in closing the gap. The next question is are they willing or capable of rising to it?

In recent years the debate in education circles has centred on the desirability of teachers basing their classroom teaching on real evidence from research studies rather than on intuition or guesswork.

Less has been said about ministers and civil servants developing policy on the basis of research evidence about what works in terms of raising standards in schools and what doesn't. Yet the more government policy prescribes behaviour in the classroom, the more influential such an axis becomes.

Our review of university departments of education found much of the research carried out is felt to be either irrelevant or unreliable by the policy formers. It would be a mistake to damn the entire research effort as lacking quality or relevance. There is good research being carried out. However it is generally inaccessible to the average teacher or civil servant. The rest is often just not good enough to meet the purpose it sets for itself.

The result is that education policy has been insufficiently informed by research, despite the efforts of over 3,000 researchers and the Pounds 65 million per year spent on such research.

Before the last election, university research into how teachers should teach in schools was generally seen as a dirty practice within the sanctuary of the Department for Education and Employment. Little money was spent directly on research or evaluation. Ideology mixed with political pragmatism ruled the day. An antipathy grew up between the research and policy communities fuelled by mutual suspicion of motives and competence.

This cultural clash has been reinforced by the faster and faster pace of policy development in recent years. New education policies have been thought up and implemented at break-neck speed and researchers have found it harder and harder to keep pace and to develop techniques to inform the process. Perhaps as a result researchers have tended to shy away from the main policy issues.

However, all is not lost. As our review shows, the climate began to change with the merger of the Department for Education with the far more research-aware employment department in the mid-1990s. Since the election, for example with the establishment of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit within the Department for Education and Employment, the desire of civil servants and ministers to be influenced by research has become even clearer.

In some ways the situation has almost turned full circle with policy-makers explicitly looking to researchers to show them what works in terms of educational practice. It is clear to one that research can and should exert a greater influence on policy development.

The apparent conversion within government circles should be translated into a clear commitment to ensure that wherever possible policies are developed on the basis of publicly available research evidence.

Government also needs to support better links between teachers, civil servants and LEA officials, on the one hand, and researchers on the other, through the development of the role of policy analysts, research consortia between schools and higher education, use of INSET, research strategies within local education authorities and research co-ordinators at school level.

But the research community needs to change as well and recognise the opportunity that exists to use its expertise to develop a more effective education service. This will mean greater collaboration within some form of national education research framework identifying the key players and processes, the relationships between them, their roles in influencing educational research, and its use in policy formation and practice.

There is an exceptional opportunity at the moment for a mutually beneficial culture to develop between the research and policy-making communities, based on dialogue and a greater understanding of each other's needs and capabilities. David Blunkett's door is slightly open. Will the education research community have the courage to go in?

Jim Hillage is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. His report, Excellence in Research on Schools, is available from the Department for Education and Employment.

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