Education: Researching for the future

Academic studies on educational philosophies sound dry, but how else can we make informed decisions about the direction our schools take? By Bethan Marshall
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I've just been on holiday, I mean I've really been on holiday. For the last two years I have just pretended. I have packed the car with the bucket and spades and the novel to read on the beach. But tucked away amidst the paraphernalia of the family holiday has been the laptop and the responses of the 75 English teachers who have formed the basis of my PhD. This time I travelled light. I sat on the beach and read that novel guilt-free instead of the latest article in my field or a school report from the Victorian era that seems eerily familiar to the complaints of the present day. I did not steal my children's coloured pencils to highlight, analyse and code those teachers' replies to my enquiry. I have finished at last.

The title of the thesis will tell you that, among a myriad of other things, I have spent the last two and a half years constructing and validating a research instrument for eliciting the subject philosophies of English teachers. But behind that arid academic speak lies the history of the subject of English - the way it has been fiercely contested since the beginning, and the way in which English is still, and has always been, intimately connected with our view of education and, through education, of society itself. So that debates that, on the surface, are about grammar or canonical authors are also about the kind of citizens we want in the future. What emerges is less a battle between traditionalists and progressives than a history of competing traditions all of which intersect, overlap and divide at various points since the 18th century.

In Blair's enthusiasm there is a Benthamite zeal. Behind Brian Cox's original national curriculum for English lies the conviction of Matthew Arnold, and later of Leavis, that art can liberate. For others, it is about the acquisition of skills and knowledge. There are those who echo early progressives in their desire to encourage personal growth by developing pupils' creativity. And there are those again who have reclaimed the voice of democratic dissent, so clearly articulated in Tom Paulin's book on the critic Hazlitt, where art and politics unite.

Any debate about the curriculum needs to unpick and unravel these positions, and ask where they are coming from in order to understand the arguments better. And this is, in part, the role of research. Yet the brief of research extends beyond historical framing. Like many teachers, I was, I confess, sceptical at first. But rather like the person who has stopped smoking and is zealously anti cigarettes, I have come to value what research can and cannot offer.

What it does not provide is certainty. Classrooms are not laboratories. But the accumulated evidence of study can illuminate our understanding of certain issues. Paul Black and Dylan William's painstaking trawl through more than 200 studies on the most effective form of assessment, for example, throws serious doubt on the benefits of a school culture driven by terminal testing. The recent National Foundation for Education Research study on pupil grouping, and similar work in Scotland by Wynn Harlen, both found no evidence that setting pupils by ability improved their performance. Research in Tennessee showed that reducing class sizes was beneficial only in certain circumstances. Increasing the time of teachers to prepare lessons, rather than simply making classes smaller may also be helpful.

All these findings challenge common sense assumptions and so should make us pause for thought. For this reason alone it is important that we continue to question how we educate our children so that we can ask whether or not we have got it right. In a soundbite culture we need to dig below the surface and not be content with the superficial. Common sense and anecdote are insufficient to govern debate and inform policy; a conviction that education matters, however passionately held, is insufficient unless it is supported by independent research. So although I'm putting my feet up for now, it will not be long before I am hitting the books again.

The writer is an English lecturer at King's College, London