Too much research, or not enough?

Whether standards can be raised by carrying out educational research is the hot topic debated by Chris Woodhead and Seamus Hegarty

The future lies not in so much pointless research but in a return to classical terrain concerning social class and schools as social systems

Around pounds 63m of taxpayers' money is spent each year on educational research. A good deal of this research is, broadly speaking, sociological. Much of it is "poor value for money in terms of improving the quality of education provided in schools". The comment is not mine. This is the professor of education at the University of Cambridge, David Hargreaves, speaking. In his view, much of the educational research published today is "frankly second-rate". It neither helps teachers nor makes "a serious contribution to fundamental theory or knowledge". It simply "clutters up academic journals which virtually nobody reads".

I agree. I used to try to read these journals. I have given up. Life is too short. There is too much to do in the real world with real teachers in real schools to worry about methodological quarrels or to waste time decoding unintelligible prose to reach (if one is lucky) a conclusion often so transparently partisan as to be worthless.

The Office for Standards in Education will be publishing a study of educational research undertaken for us by James Tooley, senior research fellow at Manchester University School of Education. Tooley concludes: "Not only was much of the research `partisan' in nature, ... but this was actively condoned by influential researchers. Many of the papers reviewed raised severe doubts about methodology, in particular over the issues of sample size, the reporting of how samples were selected, and the difficulties inherent in the conduct and reporting of qualitative research. Much theoretical research was of dubious value, in particular that concerned with unquestioning adulation of particular `great' thinkers. Finally, the focus of educational research raised some cause for concern, particularly the lack of attention paid to the way learning and access could be improved for young people."

Tooley is careful to state that some educational research is of high intellectual quality and of both theoretical and practical interest. But too much is not. Do we really need research into "how schools, as patriarchal institutions that are ideologically and culturally heterosexual, create and maintain a set of inequitable circumstances that exercise a level of control over the `private' lives of lesbian teachers"? What about papers premised on unthinking acceptance of the belief, held by Professor Stephen Ball of King's College, London, that the Conservative government's reforms were driven by the wish that schools should be "run and managed like businesses with a primary focus on the profit and loss account"? Do they really add to our understanding of how the development of an educational market can, for better or worse, influence what happens in schools?

These are not extreme examples picked to caricature the truth. They are taken from Tooley's stratified sample of articles selected from the prestigious British Journal of Sociology of Education.

So why has the quality of what is written declined so much? I think there are two explanations.

The first is something that government could do something about. It is that the expansion of higher education, coupled with the demand that every academic institution produce more research, has resulted in a lot of nonsense being published.

The second explanation is even more controversial. It is that the sociology of education is a subject without a future. On one hand, as I fear recent history shows, sociological researchers can go further and further down the ethnomethodological road, probing the interaction of everyday life in ever more minute detail; on the other, they can struggle to develop ever more complex and abstruse theories that purport to offer macro-explanations of what happens in our educational institutions. Neither possibility is likely to generate much that is of intellectual interest or, indeed, practical use.

There is, perhaps, a third way. This is to recognise that the future lies, if it lies anywhere, in rediscovering the importance of historical perspective; in the patient application of disciplines such as economics and philosophy to the understanding of our education system; in suspending political and professional prejudice; and above all, in a return to what was once the classical terrain: issues, that is, concerning social class and educability and schools as social systems.

The Department for Education is about to embark on its own review. All of us who care about education and who worry about the misuse of public funds must hope that it manages to eliminate at least some of the worst examples.

Chris Woodhead is Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools. An edited version of this article appeared in the `New Statesman' last month.

How can our Chief Inspector make decisions that affect the schooling of every child, without keeping up to date on the findings of academic journals?

Education research is the Chief Inspector's latest target. We must be grateful that so important a person can spare the time to make judgements on the subject, never mind that he finds it wanting. In fact, it's worse than that; he finds it irrelevant and substandard. In fact, Mr Woodhead lays into education research in no uncertain terms - dross, dismal quality, transparently partisan, worthless. Ouch!

The evidence to justify such judgements must be very strong indeed. It is a pity he does not set it out more clearly. Academics and researchers have a convention that conclusions must be demonstrably based on evidence. But finding the evidence in this account is difficult.

In the first place, he does not read academic journals. "Life is too short," he says. I quite agree. If you are trying to run an innovative inspection system, tackle the national curriculum and sort out teacher training, reading research journals can hardly be a priority. But refusing to read them does, of course, cut you off from one source of evidence about the quality of educational research. So what other sources of evidence does the Chief Inspector draw upon? Surprisingly, given the emphatic judgements he delivers, they are a little thin. First, he refers to an unpublished study based on reading selected articles from just three journals. Then he quotes from two Oxbridge professors. And that seems to be it.

How are we to respond to this? All of us want the best possible education for our children and our communities. Achieving it is a challenge to all and that includes researchers and inspectors, in their different roles. School reform, if it is to be effective, needs to be based on the best possible understanding of schooling and its many contexts. We can ill afford a cavalier attitude to evidence. If you think research is expensive, try ignorance.

The Chief Inspector illustrates his dismissal of education research with examples that make it look esoteric and irrelevant. He insists that these are not extreme examples. That's as may be, but a different set of examples gives a very different picture. Here is an alternative selection of topics in recent journal articles: comparing different methods of instruction for acquiring information skills; responses to educational change in primary school; computer-based problem solving, fall-back in attainment on transfer at age 11; evaluating resources for post-16 science education; competence in professional practice; differential achievement of boys and girls at GCSE; introduction of school-administered teacher training; primary teachers' confidence about teaching science and technology; training to develop team work in schools. The list could go on.

The Chief Inspector could be forgiven for not being aware of such articles, since on his own admission he does not read journals. What is more unsettling, however, is that somebody who would judge education research seems to think that academic journals are the principal outlet for research findings. This is not the case. What of all the reports and pamphlets, tests, guidelines for practice, lectures, workshops and press pieces by which research findings are routinely disseminated?

Let me offer a few examples of NFER reports. They cover topics such as: raising attainment in secondary schools, strategies for dealing with disaffected pupils, introducing scientific concepts to children; impact of the special needs code of practice in schools and LEAs, industrial monitoring in schools; guide to post-inspection planning; IT for pupils with special needs in mainstream schools, education of children looked after by the LEAS; parents' views of pre-school establishments. Hardly esoteric, and probably not too far from anybody's list of the key educational topics of the day. We also produce TOPIC, a series of short, helpful articles directly addressed to teachers and what they do, but based on research findings.

This is just a small selection of our recent output. The NFER is not alone in this. Many other institutions are producing relevant and well researched reports which challenge those who say that education research lacks relevance.

Education research - like school inspection - is not perfect, and could do better. There are very few of us engaged in it who do not want to improve it. We are not complacent, nor do we reject well-founded criticism. We welcome the review of education research being conducted under the auspices of the DfEE so long as it is an objective enquiry based on a proper assembly of facts and dispassionate analysis. It will be less likely to give easy sound-bites than one person's musings, but it is a better basis for policy decisions.

Seamus Hegarty is Director of the National Foundation for Educational Research

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