Good in theory

The idea was excellent: clear digests of cutting-edge research findings for teachers. But producing them has proved trickier than expected. David Budge reports

If life is too short to stuff a mushroom then it is definitely too brief to read more than a tiny proportion of the education research studies that pour out of universities each year.

The teaching profession should therefore give a cautious welcome to a new series of government-funded reports that could make it easier to keep abreast of research.

The long-awaited EPPI-Centre reviews attempt to do something that is dauntingly difficult - establish what researchers throughout the English-speaking world have discovered about key educational issues, then provide digests of the findings intelligible to those outside academia. Some are aimed at heads, others at teachers, governors, parents, students or policy-makers.

EPPI (Evidence for Policy and Practice) is based at London University's Institute of Education but the reviews are undertaken by groups of specialist researchers around the country. The first four groups looked at research into the effects of assessment and tests, how to counter gender-stereotyping in primary schools, the impact of technology on literacy development, and the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream education. Other reports on school leadership, early years, professional development, modern languages, thinking skills and post-16 education are being prepared.

Systematic reviewing of research is well established in medicine but EPPI's launch in London last month suggested that education reviewers are finding it difficult to mimic the medical model.

As Professor Ann Oakley, EPPI's director, said laconically: "This is definitely not the business to get into if you want an easy life."

The problem is a lack of concrete findings. Review groups panning for golden insights into inclusive education and gender stereotyping had little to show for their efforts. And the group who spent a year trying to work out how ICT affects literacy development admitted: "The answer is inconclusive ... because there is insufficient research of high quality."

However, the conference's chairman, Professor David Hargreaves, former chief of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, seemed untroubled by such problems. "This reviewing exercise can only be helpful," he said. "We now have a knowledge base that can be adapted and built on." He hoped that people would now ask themselves how to add to that knowledge.

But other researchers said privately that some reviews did not justify the time or cost involved. Although the Department for Education and Skills provided pound;20,000 for each of the first four the true cost to the universities involved was nearer pound;80,000. Some researchers may therefore drop out.

The DFES must also have some misgivings as it has agreed to spend no less than pound;2.6 million on the EPPI-Centre between 2000 and 2004. Only one of the first four reviews, on assessment, produced strong findings (TES, June 28). And they were largely critical of the Government's school tests regime.

Further embarrassments of this kind are inevitable. But Professor Michael Bassey, academic secretary of the British Educational Research Association, has suggested the department would get better answers if the reviews addressed broader questions. At present, highly-regarded studies are discarded because they do not focus on the precise review topic.

Richard Bartholomew, of the DFES's research division, agrees. "In terms of getting value we need to make it more flexible so that we can get more than one answer," he told the conference.

Others disagreed, believing that EPPI will overcome its teething problems within a few years. But it is highly unlikely the DFES will be willing to wait that long.

The review reports are available at http:eppi.ioe.ac.uk

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