Back to the drawing board for ideas

The future of education depends on good research, argue Roger Murphy and Jannette Elwood
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Surgeons, teachers, nurses, social workers and physiotherapists should all believe that they can improve their skills, we might think, and that up-to-date research can play a vital part in the process.

Most professional groups from time to time state that their profession is to become "research-based". Such a movement was called for in nursing in the early 1970s and a lot of misplaced activity ensued as a result. The call was interpreted to imply that all nurses should do research. In fact, it is now widely accepted that leading-edge nursing research requires highly specialised skills and should be done by a small group of nursing researchers.

David Hargreaves, a member of the Teacher Training Agency research committee, recently called similarly for education to become a "research-based profession". He criticised the current contribution of research to educational practice, and called for the setting-up of a new national educational research forum that would allow educationists much greater influence in deciding what research needs to be done.

He drew heavily on his own very favourable view of "evidence-based medicine", which he has encountered particularly through working with a group of surgeons in Cambridge.

"Evidence-based medicine," like "research-based profession" can be seen as no more than a sound bite or slogan, or as a much more fundamental shift in the use of research. What matters is what lies behind it. The relationship between research and professional practice in medicine is no better or worse than it is in education. The letters section of The Lancet was recently monopolised by the very surgeons held up as a model by David Hargreaves: they were engaged in a bitter row over what effective research in surgery should look like.

Anyone who cares about education should care about educational research. We cannot hope to improve if we don't conduct research to inform our improvement strategies. Indeed, Professor Hargreaves has to be right in asserting that the pounds 50m-pounds 60m which he estimates is spent on educational research in the UK each year could be better used.

Professor Hargreaves would like a national forum to dispense between pounds 10m and pounds 20m per year and to set the agenda for research.

The last thing educational research needs is for it to be constrained by the dead hand of central government or a committee with a blinkered view. Education ministers over the years have seen research as a threat - something to be controlled in case it poses a challenge to the latest ideology.

Before it was merged with the Employment Department the DofE was spending less than pounds lm per year on research, in contrast to the pounds 6m being spent on employment research during the same period. Central government urgently needs to re-direct more of its policy formation budgets into educational research, and its various quangos, agencies and departments need to be given every encouragement to use it.

In this respect the newly instituted consultation seminars on shaping government education and employment research priorities for 1997 are to be applauded. Meanwhile, other bodies putting money into educational research must be supported in their quest to pick winning ideas and to fund a good range of research projects that are not simply contrived by the ideological imperatives of today's policy makers.

Education needs cutting-edge research with the potential to challenge every practice and every professional working in it. The future of good- quality educational research requires a firmer commitment from central government to fund immediate policy-related studies. Transferring a large part of the existing, too-small budget into the hands of a government- controlled educational research forum could easily decrease rather than increase the overall effectiveness of educational research in the UK. A single forum will appear attractive to some but also needs to be recognised as a wolf in sheep's clothing by those concerned with the overall health and vitality of educational research in the UK.

Professor Roger Murphy is Dean of the Faculty of Education, University of Nottingham and President of the British Educational Research Association. Jannette Elwood is a lecturer in Education at the University of London Institute of Education and a member of the British Educational Research Association Council.