Research inquiry sparks row

September 12, 1997

PLANS for an inquiry into the quality of educational research by chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead met with fury from university educationists this week, as the British Educational Research Association held its annual conference.

Mr Woodhead's Office for Standards in Education has commissioned research to examine "recent concerns that the quality and impact of publicly-funded educational research is not up to scratch", a spokesman said.

The inquiry, led by James Tooley of Manchester University, comes partly in response to comments made in the House of Lords by Conservative peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who said education was blighted by "sinister soldiers of political correctitude".

Mr Woodhead, who earlier this year said that some researchers were "simply trying to discover evidence to confirm their prejudices", has made it clear that he expects the inquiry to lead to a purge of politically biased and less applied research and a shift towards more pedagogic work.

This week, Roger Murphy, former president of BERA and dean of education at the University of Nottingham, said Ofsted's move was an "ill-informed challenge to academic freedom". He said: "Educational researchers are not swanning around polishing their egos, doing research for the sake of research. There is some highly policy-oriented work going on and some very specific problems are being addressed."

Even the more theoretical research was still valid, claime Professor Murphy and many BERA colleagues. "Some of the greatest scientific discoveries have come through such theoretical and exploratory research," he said.

Mary Russell, secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, dismissed Woodhead's inquiry as "part of a general attempt to narrow down education and teaching so teachers don't have to think". Former UCET chair Tony Edwards, of Newcastle University, said that research "has to be focused much more directly and systematically on the improvement of (teaching) practice".

Michael Bassey, executive secretary of BERA, said that Mr Woodhead's comments could damage the campaign for more educational research funds.

"Only Pounds 66 million is spent on research," he said. Less than half of the sum came from the funding council. "This is dangerously inadequate. These myths propagated by Mr Woodhead will not help," he said.

The choice of Dr Tooley to lead the investigation has also caused controversy. BERA members claim his "rightwing views" are renowned. Dr Tooley said he was a "proper researcher" and that his research would be impartial.

Mr Woodhead has some high-profile allies. Sir Stewart Sutherland, in his report for the Dearing inquiry into higher education, commented: "I have some sympathy with the argument that more needs to be done to increase the relevance of pedagogic research to the practice of teaching."

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