A cosy world of trivial pursuits?

28th June 1996 at 01:00
David Hargreaves's blistering critique of the education research community has now been taken on board by the Teacher Training Agency. David Budge reports on the ensuing controversy, while (below and facing page) a number of prominent academics rebut claims that their work is irrelevant to practice in the real world

The academic journals publisher was remarkably self-deprecating. "Quite frankly, a lot of it is vanity publishing," he said holding up one of the journals that carry much of the output of Britain's educational researchers. "Academic research is only read by seven people, on average, and that includes the writer's mother."

He was smiling as he spoke, but as the Government and charities are believed to invest more than Pounds 50 million in educational research each year not everyone is amused by such remarks.

Professor David Hargreaves of Cambridge University is one of the people who isn't laughing. He alleges that researchers write mainly for one another and have made relatively little impact on the quality of education in Britain's schools. The Higher Education Funding Council disburses the lion's share of educational research funding (Pounds 27 million). Research councils, charities, local and central government, industry and business contribute a further Pounds 20m and higher degree students in education receive at least Pounds 5 million. But Hargreaves, who set out his critique in the Teacher Training Agency's annual lecture in April, contends that the decision-making on research funding is less fragmented than it would appear. "Almost all the money devoted to educational research is allocated on the basis of peer review, that is, researchers themselves decide which research and researchers are worth funding ... this serves to perpetuate a very unsatisfactory status quo," he says. Hargreaves praises the Economic and Social Research Council and several of the charity funders, such as the Leverhulme Trust and Nuffield Foundation (Hargreaves himself received a Leverhulme grant of Pounds 31,650 to review research in education). But he insists that there should be a national strategy for educational research. In his opinion, responsibility for shaping the research agenda should be handed over to a forum consisting of national and local policy-makers, heads, teachers, representatives of research councils, charities, trusts, governors and parents as well as researchers. Such a body, he predicts, would put an end to the "frankly second-rate educational research which does not make a serious contribution to fundamental theory or knowledge, which is irrelevant to practice, and which is unco-ordinated with any preceding or follow-up research".

Predictably, many researchers disagree vehemently with Hargreaves's analysis, arguing that his reforms might pave the way for more mechanistic research and lead to too much decision-making power being handed to too few people. The latter objection was most clearly articulated by Professor Michael Bassey, a former general secretary of the British Educational Research Association, when replying to Lord Skidelsky's 1993 call for the type of forum that Professor Hargreaves advocates: "A society where quangos of government-appointees determine what significant issues are to be researched will soon decline. The uncomfortable issues, the ones that challenge orthodoxy, will not gain funding."

The research-funders, however, appear to be better-disposed to Hargreaves's views. "Hargreaves seems to enjoy the role of the gadfly," said one charity official. "Nevertheless, there is a good deal of merit in his arguments. "

Even more significantly, the Teacher Training Agency is now advancing a policy that is virtually indistinguishable from Hargreaves's. The agency says it has been able to identify "only a small, if significant, body of research findings directly focused on classroom practice and enhancing it". And it is now trying to promote a national debate on research priorities. "Many teachers are sceptical about the value of research," the agency says in a pamphlet that has been sent to higher education institutions and local education authorities. "Too few research projects focus on classroom teaching or involve classroom teachers actively in the research process. Too much research stops short of working out the meaning of research findings for day-to-day practice. Furthermore, traditional vehicles for reporting findings are not geared sufficiently to the needs of practitioners."

The agency is, however, determined to make teaching a research-based profession and earlier this week it announced the names of 27 teacher-researchers who are to receive grants amounting to Pounds 60,000. It is also considering how the dissemination of research findings can be improved. The National Foundation for Educational Research issues research digests for teachers and has found The TES to be a useful conduit for researchers' findings. But the TTA is concerned that too many researchers are still content to see their findings appear in a peer-reviewed journal perhaps a year, or even 18 months, after their work has been completed (as if to prove the point that some researchers lack a sense of urgency one academic telephoned The TES while I was writing this article to tell me about the findings of a study he had completed last summer).

Some of these academic journals are less impenetrable than is commonly believed but others - even those that are meant to be read outside the universities - live up to their negative stereotype. A recent issue of Changing English, a journal which says it is trying to establish a dialogue between researchers and teachers, contains the following sentence: "This paper has contested Hunter's Foucauldian account of the hidden 'real' historical explanation of the formation of the literary subject as a (state sanctioned) quest to re-unify the divided problematised aesthetico-ethical self in English."

As a result, the TTA has promised that the findings of its newly-announced teacher-conducted research will be disseminated through a compendium report and conferences. It is also exploring the potential of the Internet, initially through a news page for teacher-researchers.

The British Educational Research Association's leadership, however, remains highly sceptical about the TTA's initiatives.

The researchers resent the accusation that they are removed from classroom realities and staffroom language and point out, correctly, that in recent years many of them have made a determined effort to make their findings more accessible.

But there is no doubt that the research community feels threatened by Hargreaves's charges because they are merely a more forceful re-statement of frustrations that even BERA stalwarts such as Professor Michael Bassey have expressed. He too has lambasted the "trivial pursuits" that some of his colleagues have indulged in, and in a book published last year, Creating Education Through Research, Bassey complained that there was a "dilettante tradition which stresses the act of searching for new knowledge, rather than the contribution which the new knowledge may make to theory, or to policy, or to practice. It values the singing, not the song."

David Hargreaves and the TTA would agree with that.

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