Take a look at the evidence

July 20, 2001

Ann Oakley says it is arrogant of academics to dismiss new approaches.

Every era in educational policy breeds its own buzz words and one of today's is undoubtedly "evidence". It is clear that there is a vogue for "evidence-based", "evidence-informed" or "evidence-led" policy in education. But what this means is less obvious. Who thinks evidence is a good thing? What is evidence anyway? How does (or should) evidence relate to what teachers in classrooms do?

Last year, a five-year government-funded initiative, the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre, was set up at the Institute of Education to advance this obscure objective. In our first year we have learnt what some of us already knew: that the attempt to open up the basis of professional practice to systematic scrutiny - one of the key meanings of evidence in this context - is a far from simple exercise and one that provokes a lot of resistance, particularly from the academic sector.

The EPPI-Centre launch coincided with a series of damning attacks on the status of educational research in the United Kingdom. While acknowledging problems of short-term funding, poor research training and lack of receptivity on the part of policy-makers, various reports revealed a chaotic scene: much educational research is methodologically limited, small-scale and, most damning, conducted in such a way that cumulative knowledge is rarely possible.

Given these problems, it is unsurprising that policy-makers and teachers do not seem to make much use of it. One wonders what the average parent, convinced that his or her offspring are being treated to well-tested methods of teaching and learning by true professionals, would think of these revelations.

Putting the house of educational research in order would be far too grand an aim for any single initiative. Our brief is far more modest: systematically to review research evidence in particular areas with groups of researchers and users of research. The process is explicit and transparent, includes different study designs and its results will be freely accessible on an electronic database from early 2002.

The first review groups cover assessment, English teaching, gender, inclusive education, school leadership and post-16 education.

It hardly seems threatening. It sounds like the sort of thing that ought to be happening anyway. Many educational decisions call for access to prior knowledge, and the EPPI-Centre vision is a way of organising this in a democratic and unbiased way. But naivety is one of many accusations we find being hurled against us.

We are, apparently, part of a government plot to subvert academic freedom; mistaken advocates of the "medical model" of randomised controlled trials as the only sort of research people ought to do; ignorant dismissers of the need for methodological diversity; duped believers in unproblematic, context-free knowledge.

Why the resistance, particularly from the higher education sector? Is it because the evidence approach challenges the long-established academic tradition of "experts" proclaiming on the basis of non-explicit "evidence" what only they can be expected to know?

There may be a clear parallel with medicine here. At the beginning of the modern evidence movement, irate doctors defended their professional autonomy, complaining that their clinical judgement was superior to any number of systematic reviews.

Of course, professional skills are essential, especially for frontline practitioners. But professionalisation can also be a way of renaming arrogance as knowledge. What the EPPI-Centre and other associated initiatives will achieve remains to be seen, but we are confident that those with the best interests of students at heart will help to open the door to the importance of making evidence from high-quality educational research available as a public resource.

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and social policy and director of the Social Science Research Unit and the EPPI-Centre at the University of London Institute of Education. Details: http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk.

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