Open Eye: From The Vice-Chancellor - Not the moment to abandon research

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The Independent Online
I take six newspapers: The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Economist, Maclean's, the European and the Times Higher Educational Supplement. They give me a balanced diet of news and views and prevent me from believing everything I read.

The dailies energise me for the day ahead and remind me that it's a funny old world. On July 23 a sentence leapt from the page: "Mr Woodhead said Ofsted's database of classroom practice was so extensive that he doubted whether any further educational research was needed."

I suspect Chris Woodhead didn't put it quite like that. The head of the education standards office - and thus chief nurturer of the nation's intellectual future - can hardly believe that we have come to the end of history in educational thought.

Some physicists made similar statements at the end of the 19th century and we saw what Einstein & Co. did to them. The assertion that we know all about a topic is usually the prelude to a revolution in our understanding of it.

Granted, much research is trivial - like much of day-to-day life. Granted, the refrain that 'more research is needed' that concludes many studies, is often a substitute for hard thinking about what we already know.

Granted - a key point in the document to which Chris Woodhead referred - much research strays too readily into an ideological mode of thinking. But that, surely, is the point.

As the leader of the UK's largest educational and training organisation I believe my key task is to promote the attitude of systematic scepticism that is the bulwark of a civil society and the secret of individual autonomy.

Europe's greatest gift to the world, since the creation of the University of Bologna in 1088, has been the development of the academic mode of thinking that argues its way from the evidence. It contrasts with the ideological mode of thinking that deduces its way from dogma.

We should rejoice that since 1989 Europe itself has been reunited in a commitment to the academic mode of thinking. The Soviet bloc had, in many respects, an excellent educational system. Nevertheless, by proscribing certain avenues of thinking and research the ideological mode of thinking made the system incapable of renewal.

Ofsted's database of classroom practice should be seen as nourishment for the academic mode of thinking, not dogma to support ideological reasoning.

No database will resolve for us the tensions between values. The OU has the major role in the training of our teachers and I am acutely aware of the balances we must strike in the development of our school system.

How do we balance standardisation against diversity? How do we balance collective concerns against individual interests? How do we create a teaching force whose ethnic and cultural profile matches that of the children it serves?

These are live issues as the Open University embarks on the development of a new Post Graduate Certificate in Education programme. Our first PGCE was designed in the early nineties at the request of government.

It has been hugely successful in expanding the supply of teachers in shortage areas, in increasing the ethnic diversity of the teaching force, and in giving experienced graduates the chance to change careers and work with children.

It became the only teacher training programme ever to win the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher Education.

However, perspectives change. Diversifying the teaching force and serving shortage areas means giving trainees experience in the most needy schools. But needy schools, by definition, do not have as good a training infrastructure as more privileged schools.

Where does the balance of advantage lie? Graduates who have already earned their living by applying their discipline in industry bring fresh and practical perspectives to the classroom - but they may need to refresh their knowledge of some aspects of their subject.

Where does the balance of advantage lie there? The OU will make as big a success of PGCE2 as it made of PGCE1. But it will not assume that there is a single map to the buried treasure of educational excellence.

Scepticism - including, given its secretive methods, scepticism about Ofsted's data - is a healthy stance.

Some claim that information and communication technology is about to transform our school system. This is not the moment to abandon research.