Education research will inevitably have a rollercoaster relationship with policy. If our job as researchers is to speak the truth as we find it, and present our evidence without fear or favour, then it is likely to make uncomfortable reading for Ministers and other policy makers as often as it provides succour and reassurance.
UK government departments have been major commissioners of education research, particularly under New Labour. Indeed, last year the Department for Children, Schools and Families funded education research to the tune of £27.7 million. And policy makers regularly seek research evidence from academics to inform policy development and implementation. For example, in recent years, politicians of all major parties have wanted to find ways to narrow the attainment gap between socially disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers, and research has provided evidence showing that what happens in early childhood is crucial.
A key research programme which considered the importance of early years, the EPPSE (Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education) project, based at the Institute of Education, University of London (IOE), has robustly demonstrated the lasting effects of high-quality pre-school experiences in children’s intellectual and social development. Its findings have been instrumental in formulating Sure Start and other early childhood programmes.
The cohort studies, again based at the IOE, have also had considerable impact. These studies track individuals from birth and collect vast amounts of data which enable comparison of the life trajectories of people from different backgrounds and circumstances. The studies have provided essential information for governments – Tony Blair was apparently spurred into action when he was shown a cohort study graph illustrating how poverty can stunt young children’s prospects.
However research does not always play a central role in policy development. In reality, policy is driven by all sorts of considerations as well as a range of types of evidence, and the findings of education research will sometimes be pretty low down the list. Other factors include the vicissitudes of the moment, the requirements of staying in office and the beliefs, commitments and prejudices of individual politicians and their constituents. More fundamentally, we have to acknowledge that politics is significantly shaped by symbolic considerations that may have little to do with the real effects of policies.
One well-known example is New Labour’s use of research evidence on class size during the 1997 general election. The party traded quite consciously on research findings accepted by most researchers and teachers that, if smaller classes have an unambiguously positive impact anywhere, it is in the very early years of schooling and in the most socially disadvantaged areas.
So, the manifesto commitment to cut class sizes at Key Stage 1 to below 30 looked like a socially progressive policy based on robust research findings. Yet it was probably driven as much by opinion polls as education research, given that most classes over 30 were in marginal suburban constituencies, not in inner-city areas where classes were already below that level.
Some even more robust findings on the beneficial effects of cutting infant class size to 15 in disadvantaged areas did not influence the policy at all, presumably because it would have been extremely expensive, but possibly also because additional votes in these inner-city constituencies would not swing the election.
It is clear that, while some of our work as researchers will be aligned in various ways to government agendas, some will be regarded as irrelevant or oppositional. Such a range of orientations to government policy is entirely appropriate for education research in a free society.
Researchers do nevertheless need to do more to support better use of research evidence in policy. This could include engaging with lobbying groups and think tanks, being more flexible and offering more responsive analyses and dedicating more resources to dissemination activities. And although academic reward structures haven’t traditionally incentivised such activities, this appears to be changing slowly. Particularly in these straitened times, there is also pressure to increase efficiency and reduce duplication.
There has already been an attempt to bring greater coherence to education research—both in synthesising research that is already available and coordinating future projects. For instance, under New Labour, the then Department for Education and Skills established a National Educational Research Forum and funded a five-year programme of systematic reviews of education research supported by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre).
Today, the Strategic Forum for Research in Education (SFRE) is attempting to move these ideas forward. It has drawn up a six-pronged proposal for collecting, synthesizing, assessing and mobilising knowledge. In a report called Unlocking Learning? Towards Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice in Education, the Forum says there should be more coherent planning of research activity nationally, better coordination of evidence accumulated and greater liaison between funders and stakeholders in establishing research priorities. But they dismiss aspirations to establish a centralised evidence body for education similar to the health service’s NICE as ‘a step too far’. As useful as it might be to be able to pinpoint ‘what works’, this cannot be done as neatly for children’s minds as for their bodies.
Along with ‘what works’ comes the current buzzword ‘impact’ – but there are very considerable value judgements as to what constitutes desirable impact. Indeed, a single university might, for example, have some colleagues who have worked with government bodies to improve pupil attainment on Key Stage 2 tests and others who work to bring such tests to an end by critiquing their validity or the assumptions of the regime within which they operate.
Although some education research is about ‘what works’, researchers in fields like the philosophy of education have a vital role in helping us to think about questions such as whether what we are trying to do makes sense and what constitutes socially just schooling.
For all sorts of reasons, achieving a consensus on ‘what works’ is not likely to be an obtainable goal. However, given the host of initiatives that have been launched and abandoned over the past thirty years, some agreement on ‘what doesn’t work’ may be possible. The Canadian commentator Ben Levin uses the notion of ‘policy epidemic’ as a tool for thinking about cross-national policy sharing and asks whether the ‘prevention’ of inappropriate policies could be a similarly useful idea to apply to education.
This suggests that there may be ways of strengthening the public mind on education to increase ‘resistance’ to superficial but seemingly attractive policies. Acting as public intellectuals in this way might then come to be seen as at least as legitimate a form of impact for education researchers as the questionable ‘quick fixes’ encouraged by a narrow ‘what works’ philosophy.
Director, Institute of Education