A director everyone wants to know;Briefing;Research Focus;Interview;Charles Desforges

12th February 1999 at 00:00
David Budge talks to Charles Desforges who has just taken charge of the UK's biggest-ever education research programme

The actor Charles Dance was once quoted as saying that the description "relatively famous" had taken on a new meaning for him after his appearance in The Jewel in the Crown. For, immediately after his television success, he began to hear from long-lost relatives.

Something similar may happen to Professor Charles Desforges, because the director of the school of education at the University of Exeter has just become The Man Everyone Wants to Know. As the new director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Teaching and Learning programme - the UK's biggest-ever education research programme - he has charge of an pound;11.5 million budget. And much of it will be doled out within a year.

It is quite a responsibility, but he sees it as "a fantastic opportunity to fund research that has an impact on learners' experience and attainment - at all ages and stages. Some people may think I will make as many enemies as friends, but I don't expect to have enemies."

He promises not to behave "in a Stalinist way" and says that he and the programme's steering committee will "do a lot of reading and listening" before any money changes hands. "We want to draw a map of who's doing what in research and see where the gaps are. Sometimes replication is justified. Repetition never is."

He has strong views on where the research "torch" should be shone, but says it would be wrong to think that his agenda will become THE agenda for the programme. "It just represents my own tunnel vision."

Nevertheless, he would ideally like more research into the application of knowledge. "You can say to kids, 'Divide 225 by 15', and with some effort most of them can do it. But if you say, 'There are 225 daffodil bulbs and 15 flower beds; how many should be planted in each?', they can't do it. Kids know something but struggle to use it. We should know more about why this occurs."

Improved use of information and communication technology is another goal. And although Desforges swapped science teaching for academe long ago he remains fascinated by the complex interactions between teacher and pupil which have been the focus of much of his own research.

He believes that teaching has improved enormously since he taught in secondary schools in Stockport, Stalybridge and Lichfield. But one suspects that children enjoyed his lessons because the Yorkshire-born academic sometimes sounds uncannily like playwright Alan Bennett - particularly when he refers to his mother.

Talking about the difficulty of establishing a body of "safe knowledge" and then transmitting it, he says: "My mother was convinced that if you stood in a draughty corridor you would catch a cold. She didn't believe that germs had any part in it. But then look at the medical professionI it took doctors 300 years to learn that they had to wash their hands."

He worries that teachers also sometimes act on hunches rather than evidence. For example, while research has consistently found that issuing stickers, stars and treats is not the best way to motivate children, some schools "still rush around handing out hot-dogs for good attendance".

The impression, therefore, is of an enthusiast keen to confirm what good practice is and then disseminate it as efficiently as possible. He seems less interested in research that hypothesises about education in the next millennium, but he foresees the possibility that his programme could outlive its anticipated five-year span. "After all, conditions change. You never run out of research questions."

However, he interrupts his flow, laughing at his presumption that anything lasts forever, especially in the education world, and makes one last reference to his mother. "She once said when I was complaining about being kicked in the back at rugby, 'If I had thought you wanted to live forever, I wouldn't have had you'. There's some wisdom in that."


Teaching and Learning Programme Budget: More thanpound;11.5 million.

Managed by: Economic and Social Research Council.

Funded by: Higher Education Funding Council for England. Additional support expected from Scottish and Welsh Offices.

Duration: Five years.

Phase 1: allocation of grants (10 to 15 per cent of total) for junior research fellowships and research networks. Applications invited later this month.

Phase 2: main allocation of grants (about 80 per cent of total) for mixture of large and small research projects. Commissioning begins in November 1999.

Main aims: To promote high-quality research that focuses on how to improve outcomes for all types of student; involve practitioners at every stage of the research process; encourage collaboration between social science disciplines and education.

Further information from website www.esrc.ac.uk * Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries (750 words max) to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Tel 0171 782 3276. Email: david.budge@newsint.co.uk

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