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'Research schools are stuck in a quagmire'

Teachers in research schools have the unenviable task of navigating a muddy research landscape, writes Joe Nutt

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Teachers in research schools have the unenviable task of navigating a muddy research landscape, writes Joe Nutt

On a rather more crowded than usual educational field map, 22 research schools have been given the unenviable task of scouting out the difficult terrain. Half of those are deliberately situated in "opportunity areas" identified by the government as in need of greater support and funding. These research schools have been asked to "lead the development and dissemination of evidence-led practice".

I remember, when they were first announced, thinking, "What an eminently sensible idea." Then I read the application documents. For what seemed at first sight to be a generous £250,000 over three years, a key requirement was that you had to demonstrate how you were going to work with 250 schools in your region. Which raises the small matter of the considerable communications expertise and experience someone would need on top of the sophisticated research skills necessary. Assuming you could find a professional with sufficient experience to carry out such a challenging role, what you were really talking about wasn’t a research school, it was at best receiving cash to pay for one additional body based in one school, working remotely with 250 others.

Originally research schools received £1.5 million of government funding and £2 million from the Education Endowment Foundation but things changed and they are now supported by the EEF and IEE (Institute of Effective Education) to the tune of £200,000. This boils down to £80,000 in year 1, £60,000 in year 2 and £60,000 in year 3. Although here’s the good news: their target is now only 200 schools – or five schools every week if you prefer.

But whether politicians bank with the grasping magic money tree or the infinitely more generous bank of O Tannenbaum, it isn’t simply the frugal funding that concerns me. I’m much more concerned with how this has panned out in the real world. The onus has fallen on sincere, professional teachers with minimal research experience but bags of goodwill, to try and accumulate the considerable skills and experience needed, as best they can.

For those teachers, the research landscape is more like a Tough Mudder than a walk in the park. Here are just some of the murky holes waiting for them to fall into.

That tawdry, postmodernist marketing slogan "the personal is political" has been eagerly adopted as nothing short of a personal creed by all kinds of people working in educational policy and reform. So much so, it’s extraordinarily rare to find research that has not been commissioned by a member of the faithful and is, therefore, not coming at you with a distinctly evangelical purpose. This unabashed zealotry presents the research school with some major hurdles.

For example, I’ve just read a 35-page research report on social mobility commissioned by the EEF, which happily cites research by the EEF’s parent funder, The Sutton Trust, no less than 10 times. This incestuous use of "evidence" is common.

Deliberate obfuscation in research

In an effort to combat this sort of deceit, the Department for International Development (DfID), for example, has 10 ethical principles for research and evaluation. Number 9 states: "Research and evaluation should usually be independent of those implementing an intervention or programme under study." But if you’re one of those research school leads and you’re thinking, “Freat, that sounds like a wise move,” don’t abandon your wellies just yet.

Working on a project some months ago, I read an important international report on educational technology published by DfID. This crucial statement, "The following uses of edtech by teachers were associated with positive changes in learning outcomes and classroom practice," was followed by five recommended case studies. One of which was a teacher development programme outside the UK directed by – the lead author of the report.

Teachers wading through all this mud will also have to get used to the idea that how researchers reach their conclusions is frequently deliberately obscured. When a researcher hides a clause in a marginal footnote, like this beauty, "The term ‘effect’ size is in inverted commas throughout because although this is the standard term for this index of average difference, it should not be read to imply any sort of causal relationship," my alarm bells don’t exactly tinkle. This was from a hugely influential research paper on the negative effect of grammar schools.

Another form this kind of deliberate obfuscation takes is to hide the vital piece of inconvenient information behind a graphical image or diagram. Getting your head around graphical manipulation alone would keep any teacher in a research school busy for months. Thinktanks have an especially chequered history in this respect, so when you see anything printed in glossy colour remember it wasn’t cheap, and those costs were incurred for a reason. Similarly, anything with flags on should flag a warning. Comparing nations educationally is a bit like upgrading the village dog show. Just picture those judges in the grand final at Crufts.

If the actual heading of a diagram or graph has a footnote, make sure you read it because it will almost certainly prove to be more useful than the actual heading. I’ve just read an Organsiation for Economic Cooperation and Development report on education and social mobility that does this to hide the inconvenient truth that faster economic growth has a positive impact on social mobility for the most disadvantaged.

The whole evidence-led movement is one I admire and support. If research schools can “lead the development and dissemination of evidence-led practice”, I’m all in favour, but let no one be under any illusion. It takes years and opportunity to accumulate the kind of sophisticated research literacy teachers will need to work their way around these obstacles without getting mud on their faces. Far too many teachers using social media already think mudslinging is some kind of acceptable professional exchange, so if research schools are counting on using well-known platforms as part of their plan to reach that 200 target, the whole laudable initiative will be at serious risk of disappearing without trace in a quagmire of naive claim and counterclaim.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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