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Supposing you were asked to write a spoof on educational research. What could you come up with? Perhaps something along the lines of Pete's Tool, "a study of the interactional work of one boy in a technology lesson, as he elaborates, through play with workshop tools, a sexual fantasy of masturbation and penetration".

Or what about, Between Post Modernism and Nowhere, arguing that educational neo-Marxism is alive and well, and "post modernism is inadequate as a basis for rethinking educational theory"? Or maybe something more sociological: Community and Collectivism, "the discursive positioning (of which) influences the ways in which relationships between parents and the educational system are perceived and construed"?

A trifle over-the top, you might think, even for parody. But not a bit of it. In fact, all three are actual articles published this year in leading journals in the field. Is it any wonder then that, for all the millions currently spent on studying education, the people who matter - the policymakers and the teachers - appear to make little use of the findings? It is said that even academics are more likely to write papers than to read them.

Given the immense importance of a good educational system to the quality of all our lives, how has this trivialisation occurred? It is true that studying education is difficult. Scientific methods which work so wonderfully well when it comes to making sense of rocks or plants are only occasionally appropriate for studying people. Yet other forms of inquiry rarely seem to yield the reliable, checkable information that those who make education happen are looking for.

Faced with the evident difficulties, and perhaps under pressure to do research, education academics - as our examples show - tend to cope in a variety of ways. They argue that since education imbues the whole of human life, the entire world is their research oyster. They adopt the stance of social scientists studying education as a contribution to the parent discipline rather than that of researchers seeking information to improve education. They take refuge in obscure language.

Sometimes they resort to writing their own prejudices large. How about "Masculinity, violence and schooling: challenging poisonous pedagogies" for a dispassionate title? But, above all, they seem to attempt peripheral questions, perhaps to avoid the risk of being found out in the reality of classroom.

Not all educational research is like this. Performance in our schools is being carefully compared with that of other countries. Serious attempts are being made to tease out what distinguishes effective schools from the less successful. Ways are being found to improve thinking skills.

But these are the exceptions. Much of the rest is inadequate because it is insufficiently focused on areas where systematic knowledge can make a difference; it is confused as to what research can and can't do, and it does not attach sufficient importance to the applied nature of what is required.

Take literacy and numeracy for example. If there is now an obligation on primary schools through the targets to bring the great majority of children up to specified levels irrespective of their starting points, how is this to be achieved? Consultants can only be as good as what they know. Research could have a very important part to play. Among teachers there is a considerable amount of common-sense knowledge as to what works and what doesn't. This should be systematised, tested and extended to create a body of understanding which can be continually improved by checking against pupils' learning.

As well as good applied research, we also need accurate checkable pictures of "what is" as a basis for sound policy making. The sheer difficulty of recruiting high quality teachers is brought home by the close correspondence between unemployment among new graduates and training applications. The dramatic change to A-levels is there for all to see when the increasing pass rate year-by-year since 1982 is compared with the plateau of the previous thirty years.

Good educational research is needed not only as a basis for improving policy and practice, but also to ensure that beliefs about education are contestable. Competence-based learning is only the latest in a long line of fads and fashions which have spread like wildfire through English-speaking countries. Empirical evidence offers us some protection from, as Gellner put it, "faiths filling out the world".

Sadly, whatever the protestations of the British Educational Research Association, too little of current research contributes in any of these ways. Our educational system therefore is not improving as it should, and we are left at the mercy of whims and follies - not a few of which are generated by the researchers themselves.

The writer is professor of Policy Research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.

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