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6th December 1996 at 00:00
There is no precise date for the birth of the National Foundation for Educational Research. But in 1946 it acquired an executive committee; and this is the historical point taken for this week's 50th anniversary.

In fact its roots stretch back to the 1930s, when the Carnegie Institute of New York offered a 10,000-dollar grant towards large-scale, systematic research.

These days it is Britain's largest institution of educational research. It employs 200 staff in its Slough headquarters, Swansea and York and has become, according to the director, Dr Seamus Hegarty, one of the few sources of stable careers in educational research. It carries out 100 projects a year, covering fields from nursery school inspections to modern apprenticeships.

Most of its income is from external sponsors, with the Government or its agencies accounting for the lion's share: Pounds 4,419,000 in 199596. The NFER's "members", comprising local education authorities and professional teaching organisations, sponsored a further Pounds 1,119,000 of work, roughly matching the Pounds 1,455,000 from the NFER's own resources.

The foundation is perhaps best known for its pioneering work in devising tests, initially fuelled by demand from grammar schools after the war. It was able to set up its own tests division in 1949 followed by its own tests publishing house. This later became the NFER-Nelson company, jointly owned between the foundation and the International Thomson Corporation. More recently it has played a major part in developing practically-based tests. These moved away from relying on written answers alone to using open-ended tasks, allowing teachers to assess individuals or small groups.

The foundation has always been close to local government, which continues to commission substantial amounts of research. With the arrival of Clare Burstall as director in 1983 it gained both a heightened public profile and strong links with central government - which proved particularly valuable in the years of educational change which were to follow.

Through the Government's Assessment and Performance Unit, for example, the foundation played a substantial part in the development of the Task Group on Assessment and Testing's 10-level framework, used for assessing progress in the national curriculum.

It was also one of the agencies commissioned to produce standard assessment tasks for seven-year-olds (although these eventually proved unable to meet the competing needs for detailed diagnostic information, manageability and standardised rigour). The NFER designed the key stage 2 tests in English and KS 3 tests in maths.

Dr Hegarty is particularly proud of the foundation's work with special educational needs. During the 1970s and 80s it conducted a series of projects looking at the feasibility of integrated provision.

He believes that the future will increasingly require the sort of large-scale research capacity that the NFER, with its staff training, support and quality control, can offer.

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