Policy studies have come of age

November 25, 1994

It is only a little more than ten years ago that British academics were lamenting the paucity of education policy studies in this country and contrasting this sorry state of affairs with the comparative wealth of research in the United States.

With one or two notable exceptions, including the work of Maurice Kogan and A. H. Halsey, education policy research in Britain tended to be geared towards problem solving: infatuated with the description and evaluation of organisational reform, management improvement and implementation strategies and procedures. All in all, studies in this area tended to approximate to what C. Wright Mills called "abstracted empiricism" -- rich description, no theory.

However, things have changed since the Conservatives became entrenched in the 1980s and introduced wide-ranging educational and social reforms. Quite simply, initiatives such as the Education Acts of 1981, 1986 and 1993 and above all, the Education Reform Act (ERA) of 1988 provided a massive shot in the arm for the development of a new genre of educational policy studies. These studies have tended to break rank with atheoretical accounts of education policy and those which rest almost entirely upon managerialist perspectives on the policy process. Referred to as "policy scholarship" or "education policy sociology", these studies have ensured that all aspects of the ensemble of Conservative legislative measures have been subject to rigorous scrutiny.

The publication of our new edited book, Researching Education Policy: Ethical and Methodological Issues, is testimony to the growing maturity of research in this area. The collection is based on papers delivered by 16 authors during a series of seminars convened at the University of Warwick under the auspices of the Economic and Social Research Council research seminar competition. Some of the contributors, such as Stephen Ball, Rosemary Deem and Kevin Brehony, Martin Hughes, Jenny Ozga, Sharon Gewirtz and Geoffrey Walford have been involved directly in researching the various educational reforms of the 1980s and 1990s; others, like Roger Dale, Martyn Hammersley and Beverley Skeggs have been more concerned with methodological questions and theorising the significance and implications of education policy. Whatever the nature of their activity, we encouraged them to reveal and share "what goes on" in the conception, execution, analysis and dissemination of their research. The focus was on process rather than product.

The result shows that the "policy scholars" of the l990s not only have a healthy disregard for managerialist and bureaucratic understandings of the policy process, but also import into this area an impressive array of theoretical and disciplinary, not to mention methodological, perspectives. Some of the chapters are embedded in Marxist frameworks, while others draw on pluralist approaches and feminist perspectives. It is also possible to see the influence of Foucault, Baudrillard, Bourdieu and Offe on the way policy scholars begin to understand the nature of the policy process.

Studies of education policy also draw upon a wide range of methodologies -- interviews, primary source documentation, ethnography and survey research -- and derive their research data from an equally impressive range of research sites: Whitehall, local education authorities, schools, private residencies and school and college governing bodies.

So, is everything rosy in the education policy garden? Well, not quite. For a start, as one of our contributors, May Pettrigrew of the University of East Anglia, makes clear, increasing contractual control, especially in centrally commissioned research, has the potential to nullify the advances made in this area over the past ten or so years. As the pursuit of increasingly scarce funds for research intensifies and sponsors become progressively more focussed on "problem-solving" research, the room for developing further novel theoretical and methodological ideas about education policy will be heavily circumscribed. Nor is this the worst of it.

The Teacher Training Agency, announced in 1993, will have responsibility for funding some educational research. Given the fact the TTA is likely to be made up of members appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and that the research grants it allocates will be subject in each case to the terms and conditions as the TTA thinks fit, the prospects for policy scholars look gloomy.

While it is never sensible to describe any period as a "golden" one, it is likely that many policy scholars, unlike teachers in schools, will look back on the 1980s, and 1990s, rather ironically, as a time in which they found plenty of new work to do, and the resources to do it.

Researching Education Policy, edited by David Halpin and Barry Troyna is published by Falmer Press. David Halpin is a lecturer and Barry Troyna a reader at the University of Warwick Institute of Education.

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