Putting more sparkle into dull image

Nicholas Pyke looks behind the worthy face of a national institution celebrating its 50th anniversary.

After half a century, the National Foundation for Educational Research has burrowed its way into the educational subconscious. It rarely attracts the headlines sought by the snazzier, small-scale operators. Yet everyone knows that somewhere in Slough, Britain's largest educational research body is busy turning out a relentless stream of 100 studies and reports a year.

It attracts more than Pounds 4 million from the Government alone, quite an achievement given the prevailing hostility to educational research. But in doing so, the foundation often finds itself disparaged by competitors in the notoriously hard, and bitchy, battle for funds.

"It's rather dull and does the Government's bidding. Its studies are technically quite good. But slow. Quite solid, but not at all imaginative. " This stinging summary comes from one of our most influential education professors.

He remains anonymous, not least because, as he freely admits, the criticism smacks of sour grapes.

Anonymous or not, such views are widespread in many university education departments. The NFER is acknowledged to have been at the cutting edge of policy debate in the 1960s with its studies of academic selection and the feasibility of comprehensive education. Since then, runs the argument, the foundation has been little more than a safe pair of hands for large, principally administrative, contracts. This dullness, they continue, is a particularly bad thing for what is presented as a "national" foundation, the biggest consumer of government and LEA research money.

Indeed, say the academics, it is too close to local and central government for its own good. "Unfortunately I think they're cut off from two kinds of community," said another anonymous education professor. "One is an exciting, academic community which is discipline-based - allowing interesting sociological or psychological perspectives. At the same time, they are not terribly close to teachers and schools."

In technical terms, the NFER stands accused of concentrating on description at the expense of evaluation. So that, for example, the major study of the costly Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, while detailed, failed to say what was fundamentally wrong with a scheme which few believe has truly promoted the standing of either branch of education.

The NFER has its defenders, of course: not least those who commission it. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has no doubt it gets good value for money: "The NFER does a lot of our test development work, and they do it very well," says David Hawker, the assistant chief executive in charge of statutory assessment.

Seamus Hegarty, the NFER's director since late 1993, is perfectly capable of mounting his own defence. The academic criticism, he says, is both familiar and wrong.

In the first place, he says, the foundation's reputation for traditional, survey-based work can mislead. It increasingly uses a mixture of methods including value judgment as well as description and formative assessment.

He says the organisation is thoroughly involved in questions of what makes for effective schools - but that it has failed to ensure it gets the appropriate credit.

Most importantly, he says, the NFER has made substantial innovations, whatever people say: in special educational needs and, most distinctively, in the world of tests, where, in the words of former TES editor Stuart Maclure, it led the move away from "arid psychometrics" towards a more observational and flexible approach.

Dr Hegarty believes that fundamental to the accusations is the fact that the NFER sets out to do a job that university academics rather disdain. And this is why they regard the foundation as dull.

"It's a fairly common charge. There's a grain of truth in it. But it's mostly not true. Researchers have to accept the policies of the government of the day and work within them. It's not particularly their job to seek to change those policies. It's to gather information that informs policies, maybe to draw attention to the problems with them. As researchers we have to be apolitical. That's the root of why some people will charge us with being safe and kind of boring, because we don't see our role as being to campaign against things that many of us have strong reservations about. The academics, on the other hand, have quite a clear role in providing a critique of current policy."

Moreover - and very much to the point - the more speculative, academic-style projects simply have not paid. "We have not been as active in the academic community as perhaps some people would like us to be. But the fact is that, until recently, the Economic and Social Research Council didn't pay realistic overheads. That was OK for universities who had the Higher Education Funding Councils to provide additional funding. We don't have that fairy godmother. What we research is very much a question of what our sponsors want. If what they want is a formative evaluation, that's what we do."

That said, he wants the foundation to get more involved with higher education. He also hopes to increase the proportion of non-sponsored research. In particular it hopes to establish what the current state of knowledge is in relation to a range of key issues like class size.

Ivor Widdison, administrator at the Council of Local Education Authorities, agrees that the NFER cannot be blamed for carrying out research requests.

"There's a lot of professional jealousy in research. The critics seem to ignore that fact that you need freestanding monies in order to say 'Let's research this issue irrespective of political considerations'. Yes, the foundation is close to the LEA world. It has a superb network with the LEAs and schools; and that is one of the reasons we stay with them.

"I also think people are critical because they do an honest job: they report what people say to them. Sometimes the result of the research isn't what you'd like it to be because the people they were questioning were not up to the job of answering."

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