Education: Paranoid? Or are they really out to get you?

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Government funding for education research is a political hot potato at the best of times. So when Ofsted appointed a right-wing ideologue to look into what is being researched, blackboard dusters were sure to fly. David Walker reports

Educational research is in uproar. If you think schoolteachers are beleaguered, try talking to professors of education. The paranoia drips off the walls. Where will their next pounds 100,000 project come from? Why has the Higher Education Funding Council turned against them? Chris Woodhead is after their blood. What is the Department for Education up to with its secret conclaves on research?

I exaggerate, but only just. A feverish anxiety has overtaken the education research establishment, but perhaps its fears are not misplaced. The Government, in the shape of the Dfee and sundry education quangos, is reviewing its large outlays on research and change is in the offing. Education research is not going to stop - not when David Blunkett has just appointed the researcher Professor Michael Barber as a key adviser. But over the new few months it could start to be significantly redistributed.

Some pounds 70m a year is spent on research in education in England - by the DFEE, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Teacher Training Agency and as part of Hefce's support for university education departments.

How much of this is useful - meaning of positive benefit to classroom teachers and, by improving their practice, to the children they are educating ? How much of this contributes to raising the attainment of schoolchildren in line with official priorities? Those, needless to say, are loaded questions.

But they are being levelled, not always politely, by researchers themselves. Writing on these pages a month ago, Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel was caustic. He plucked examples of research which, he argued, were silly and pointlessly abstract, jargon-laden and above all useless as a guide to action by practising teachers.

For Sig Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research: "Where the whole future of the country depends on educational progress, is it right and morally defensible that so much of this kind of work gets done?" Chris Woodhead of Ofsted, typically, is brutal. Education research is now squarely in his line of vision.

A couple of weeks ago Dr James Tooley began a pounds 12,000 project on Ofsted's behalf to classify the literature of education research - how many articles about racism and Marxism, how much about classroom practice, school organisation etc. If that sounds innocuous it isn't meant to.

Mention Dr Tooley's name in the presence of, say, Professor Margaret Brown of King's College, London, current president of the British Education Research Association and you can hear her teeth gnashing. "We are concerned for an unbiased account - given Tooley's background. I don't know how this research is going to be properly evaluated."

Based at Manchester University, Dr Tooley is associated, ideologically speaking, with the Institute of Economic Affairs, the neo-liberal think tank. When his research grant from Ofsted was announced he made some tendentious remarks in a Murdoch newspaper. "Millions in taxpayers' money is spent on producing unintelligible reports into issues with no practical relevance," he said.

When I spoke to him he was milder. He professed the belief that the Government should fund no educational research. Since it did it ought to be pigeonholed and evaluated. His own political views did not come into it, he said.

Dr Tooley is due to report in the spring, though Ofsted says it may take the rest of next year to consult on his work. Before then, however, the research establishment will have to confront a more pressing problem.

During the summer it emerged that Hefce is engaging in some major surgery on the flow of money to education departments in universities. First it is downgrading education to a lower cost band and then, second, it wants to top slice some pounds 3.5m off the education total. This money is to be put into a pot, administered in association with the Teacher Training Agency and the Further Education Funding Council, and paid out in grants to projects that are more "applied", more "pedagogical".

A number of researchers have caught the whiff of a conspiracy. Others talk grimly about academic freedom being subverted.

In a recent article Professor Caroline Gipps, Dean of Research at the Institute of Education in London, talked of "significant changes in the research agendas" of Dfee, the Esrc and the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority - now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Meanwhile the TTA, she said, was behaving like a convert to the new religion of classroom based research, ie work focused on the realities of classroom life.

There appear to be two problems, the first of which is not confined solely to education. It's whether the research actually gets read by those it might actually concern, front line professionals. (A recent study of doctors showed that only a tiny fraction of them bothered to keep up with developments published in the British Medical Journal.)

Even researchers anxious about the Tooley investigation accept "we need to ask what the country is getting out of our research, whether there is enough evidence of its being read and used". That is Professor Roger Murphy of Durham University, who adds "there is a lot of good research out there".

But how much? The second question facing education research is whether too much research is being commissioned. (There is a subtext here. It's agreed, in private, that much second-rate work is produced, admittedly at lower cost, by the staff of the former polytechnics.) This query about the quantum of research has underlain the recent Dfee consultations convened by schools deputy secretary Peter Owen.

When education minister Stephen Byers recently visited the Institute of Education he was strongly lobbied about the value of empirical research, for example on the effects of different kinds of pre-schooling - something critical to the Government's policy deliberations. "Longitudinal" studies - chasing a group of pupils over time - are vital to evaluating changes in teaching technique.

But what if Mr Byers turns round and asks how much of this kind of work is getting down to the classroom as opposed to research that looks like ideology under another name or fatuous theorising? Will the high-grade education researchers be able to produce a convincing reply before Ofsted weighs in with the results of Dr Tooley's study? They can rest assured it is not going to be complimentary.

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