How to publish and be doomed

The Government is only interested in research results it wants to hear, argue Mary Tasker and David Packham
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The Independent Online
Does the recent furore over educational research have any significance for the general public? James Tooley's recent study, entitled Educational Research, a Critique, published in July l998, was represented by OFSTED as showing that much of the pounds 65m spent annually by the Government on funding such research was wasted.

The following month, The Institute for Employment Studies' report corroborated this, and both reports claimed that much of the research was of dubious quality. Both reports were commissioned by the Government: Tooley by OFSTED and the IES by the Department for Education and Employment. Their "findings" were accepted by Tessa Blackstone, Minister for Higher Education, who almost immediately announced a shift in government policy. In future, funding for educational research will be concentrated in 10 to 20 "centres of research excellence", and the research itself will be focused on what works best in the classroom.

The significant issue here is not the predictable attack on academics in university education departments, but the high-handedness of the educational policy makers. On the basis of two Government-commissioned research studies, a radical reworking of policy is planned. If Blackstone's intentions are put into practice, research which will shape the development of the education system - and therefore affect the everyday lives of our children - will become increasingly centralised and directed. In other words, it will be subject to greater government control. Academic freedom will be eroded as those researchers working in universities not rated as a centre of excellence are silenced, and those researchers who do obtain funding will find that their freedom to research into what they think worthwhile is curtailed.

The "research shows" argument is being used here to justify controversial and far-reaching changes in educational policy. It is important to recognise that this argument relies for its strength on the belief that research is not just thorough and comprehensive, but is also objective, disinterested and value free. The argument will be particularly effective if there is also a belief that research issues have simple, unambiguous answers which, once found, cannot be challenged.

Both these beliefs are open to serious challenge. The ideal of value- free research carried out by a disinterested researcher is difficult to achieve in the natural sciences - let alone in the social sciences. The conflicts that have raged within the scientific community, over issues such as BSE, global warming and the effects of smoking, have revealed the different value positions which researchers bring to their work, and the financial and institutional pressures to which they are subject. We now recognise the complexity even of apparently simple questions such as "Is this pesticide safe?", and that simple answers rarely exist.

To return to the IES study and Tooley's critique, both were limited in scope and both were carried out over a period of only a few months. Tooley studied 41 articles appearing in the four leading academic education journals, and "found" that the majority were unsatisfactory. Faults alleged included partisan authorship, subjectivity and the "lifting" of quotations from secondary sources without going back to primary sources. The Tooley report can hardly be rated as "disinterested", in the sense that the research was commissioned by the Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, whose sceptical views on current educational research are well known, and who was reported in September l997 to have expected the shift in research focus that the report recommended.

As regards the problem of "partisan" research, it is worth noting that Tooley, recently appointed to a chair of education at Newcastle University, is also a director of education at a right wing think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs, and that most of his recent research publications have consisted of a vigorous defence of a range of New Right educational positions.

The Tooley/IES research shows the dangers of extending to educational research the "narrowing down" tendency implicit in the Government's education policy. Confined to a few centres of excellence - and who chooses these? - and "directed" in the selection of subject matter, educational research will fall into place in a centrally controlled national education system. "Research" will form the final piece of the jigsaw, and lock into a framework made up of a narrow and prescriptive national curriculum, a uniform system of assessment, and a set of national league tables where raw data, which takes no account of school background, can so easily mislead. In such a system, independent educational research might be dispensed with altogether.

OFSTED is establishing its own data base, consisting of its school reports over the last five years, and there is a fear that, flawed and controversial as many regard them to be, these reports will become the raw material for the classroom research of the future.

The significance of the flurry of interest - surprisingly short-lived - over the Tooley and IES research is that it highlights the increasing control exercised by Government departments over funded research. Freedom to publish is fundamental to a university, yet in recent years control over how the research is to be carried out and how the results are presented have formed part and parcel of many Government research contracts.

These are not just restrictions which apply where national security might conceivably be at stake, but can be found in contracts from departments concerned with health, employment, social security and a whole range of governmental education agencies. For example, the Department for Education and Employment retains the right of veto over publication in its standard research contract. To put it bluntly, if it doesn't like the conclusions of a research study, it has the power to ensure that they don't see the light of day!

To end on a personal note, we don't find it surprising that our own research, into ways in which government intervention and control in higher education is growing, is among the papers denounced by Professor Tooley as "partisan"!

Mary Tasker is Chair of Human Scale Education; David Packham is in the Department of Materials Science at the University of Bath.