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How to compete with the big boys;Briefing;Research Focus

Raphael Wilkins reports on the attempts of new unitary authority Thurrock to justify its existence.

How can a new, small, local education authority do better than large, experienced ones - better enough to justify the upheaval of the unitary reorganisation? How can LEAs play their part in helping to bridge the divide between educational research, policy and practice? And, most importantly, how do LEAs add value to the education service in their area?

These are some of the questions the Thurrock LEA research project has been set up to answer. They are questions the Essex authority cannot answer on its own without being accused of partisanship. Two other perspectives are needed: that of practitioners in schools and colleges, and an objective academic view.

Thurrock has therefore drawn together a practitioner research team, and engaged the services of Anglia Business School to provide the academic perspective. The research team, currently 16 people, includes headteachers, deputy heads and classroom teachers from a wide range of institutions including infant, junior, primary, secondary, and special schools, and staff from sixth-form, further education and adult education colleges. The schools span the local authority controlled, voluntary-aided, and grant-maintained sectors.

The project was launched last October, and the first phase should be completed by December 2000. Research team members are most typically registered for MPhilPhD programmes, or are using their involvement in the project to satisfy the dissertation component of a taught higher degree, or combining the project with a postgraduate education programme.

Each researcher has selected topics to investigate which satisfy three criteria: the topic must have direct relevance to that individual's current priorities in their normal work; it must also throw some light on how the LEA can best add value; and the topics must hang together as balanced components of a coherent project where the sum is greater than the parts. The research team meets regularly.

The LEA gains high-quality data about aspects of its performance, and the research-team members benefit from a far richer professional development experience than they would have had from studying in isolation. The Government benefits also, because its current policy programme for educational achievement needs to be fed with researched knowledge of what strategies and tactics are most effective on the ground.

The fields of study covered within the project are grouped to fit into the categories of LEA activity defined in the Government's new funding arrangements; school improvement, access, special needs, and strategy. This enables the project to be keyed into the draft education development plan that the Government wants all LEAs to prepare, and helps cement the influence of research on policy.

When conventional research methods are used for evaluation studies, they carry a big risk for the policy-makers who commission them. The researcher observes but does not interfere. This can mean that in a study extending over quite a long period, if the researchers observe bad practice, they have no right, indeed it would be "invalid", to interfere: they just keep on neutrally observing and recording.

The Thurrock project takes a different approach by incorporating a strong element of action research. The researchers identify problems and see it as part of their remit to help to understand and solve them.

Sometimes practitioner research is dismissed as a second-rate product; as a kind of amateurish, cheap alternative to "real" research. When the mix of methodologies includes action research and problem-solving elements, the practitioner's "inside" view becomes a positive advantage. When the practitioner-researchers are part of an organised team which includes external academic supervision, then a high-quality research product becomes a realistic aim.

The progress and outcomes of the Thurrock approach will be fully disseminated through conferences and publications. It is a model which can help to re-establish practitioner ownership and leadership of those aspects of educational improvement which will always depend on creativity at institutional and local levels.

Raphael Wilkins is director of education for Thurrock Council. Contact tel. 01375-652282, fax 01375-652792.

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