Another one for the scrap heap?

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Does the Government cherry-pick research to suits its policies? Take Tomlinson : is there any point in expensive and time-consuming groundwork being done if findings are going to be shelved or ignored? Martin Whittaker investigates

When Mike Tomlinson's working group on 14 to 19 reform published its blueprint for a new diploma qualification last October, it was welcomed by headteachers and university vice-chancellors alike. It's a weighty report, and underpinning it is a huge list of experts who sat on the working group and its many sub-groups. Academics worked alongside the great and the good from colleges, awarding bodies, higher education, employers, and the voluntary sector - all getting around the table with New Labour to draft radical recommendations for the future of education.

And so they should, we hear you cry, for something as fundamentally important and far-reaching as the reform of a national qualifications system. But, according to one member of the working group, this was a departure for a government, which usually prefers to cherry-pick research to suit its policies. In fact, the academics were all summoned in a cry for help following the A-level fiasco of 2002 (when exam boards claimed they were pressured by government targets to downgrade A-levels), says Dr Ken Spours, of the University of London Institute of Education.

"They were so desperate they even allowed people like me in, which they normally would not have done," he says. "And the radicals did provide them with the best designs - there's no doubt about that."

The proposed unified diploma system is actually based on years of solid groundwork. "For 10 or more years we fought for a unified system," says Dr Spours. "It was only in 2002 that an opportunity for that to come in as a solution opened up around an A-level crisis and around Miliband (the minister in charge at the time) and the fact that the 14 to 19 phase was on the policy timetable. But had we not done the work over those years, those solutions wouldn't have been accepted at all."

Now the education world waits to see if the Government heeds the groundwork and implements the changes. Meanwhile, the experience of academics at the Government table gives interesting insights into the way policymakers interact with education research. Despite the Tomlinson inquiry, so well-informed and such a window of opportunity, Dr Spours found that the constraints of time limited how much actual research it could use.

"Its views about things were not dogmatic; they were grounded in a lot of experience and research," he says. "But I would not say that the working group had utilised all or even a great deal of the available research in the field.

"Actually, there were a number of reasons for that. I don't think anybody on the committee was anti-research. I just think that if you're working over 18 months and you're working in very constrained phases, there's a limit to what you can do and how much you can draw upon."

David Raffe, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh and another member of the working group agrees. "To begin with, we had an agenda and a clear remit and we were fairly open-minded. We were trying to be receptive to different types of thinking.

"As you start to focus, once the parameters of the report get progressively firmer, then you're looking for the bits of research that will fill in the gaps rather than question too many of the assumptions you've been working on.

"And speaking on the other side of the fence, just as a researcher, it's undoubtedly true that the perceived usefulness of a piece of research also depends on the extent to which it confirms the existing thrust of policymaking."

Which raises questions about the point of research. In fact, Tomlinson has not met universal approval. One critic, Harry Judge, an emeritus fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, writing in The Guardian, attacked the report, claiming it was "by a comfortable margin the worst policy document the education establishment has ever produced".

An interesting counterpoint to the work of the working group is the academic community's own version. As the Tomlinson group issued its report, the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training was one year into its own detailed three-year inquiry. With Tomlinson in progress, this independently funded review sought to scrutinise every aspect of the age range and to "ask searching questions, to challenge the assumptions behind these changes and examine what they mean for learners".

The Nuffield Review has identified areas where more research is needed. For example, it says the decisions young people make over further education and employment, and the factors that affect them, are complex and poorly understood. We need a more accurate picture of different patterns of work-based and work-related learning, says the report. It questions why the role and responsibility of employers is a subject absent from the 14 to 19 debate.

And it bemoans the lack of statistical information coherently covering the whole of 14 to 19, which limits the ability to investigate patterns of progression among young people.

Professor Richard Pring, Nuffield's lead director, says the review would have gone ahead whether the Government's 14 to 19 group had happened or not. "In a way we're saying: 'Forget Tomlinson: it's much too narrow in its brief.' And we're saying that we need to look absolutely comprehensively, starting with the quality of learning. What's worth learning, how learning should be ideally organised, what is the institutional framework, what are the funding arrangements and what is the teacher preparation? These are issues Tomlinson doesn't really refer to."

Sadly, the last thing a government seems to want to hear is that these issues raise further questions. On the other hand, the education and training roadside is becoming littered with stalled initiatives, such as the e-University and the NHS university. And then there's Connexions, the Government's ill-fated support service for teenagers. At its launch, experts from the guidance field were warning that the Connexions model would focus on helping those not in employment, education or training, to the detriment of careers advice and guidance in schools. The warning was not heeded and the fears of those in the sector were realised. In December, a report by MPs was highly critical of the quality of careers advice available in schools and called for improvements to Connexions. The service may now be returned to local education authorities.

Have policymakers learned their lesson? Apparently not. At the end of last year, FE college principals voiced concerns about government plans to make learners pay their way by getting colleges to increase course fees. And yet the Learning and Skills Council has admitted that the whole area of fees in FE, and the effect this would have on demand for learning, is under-researched.

Ken Spours says there is unwillingness among some in higher education to engage with policymakers and practitioners. He also thinks that the Government is too interested in quick fixes. There needs to be a new relationship, he says.

"If you look at what the Government has done regarding education research, it has put money into centres of excellence and there they fund research, but they have a high degree of control over it."

"My view would be that the more democratic the government, the more open it is with research; the more controlling the government, the more controlling it is with research. And this government is pretty controlling."

He believes the Government has to be more tolerant of research that looks at the longer term. "It's not just about quick fixes," he says. "It has to produce a climate and a set of relationships which are more open and based on dialogue. This doesn't come easily to politicians, by the way, because the researcher turns up and says, 'Actually, this is complex'. The last thing a politician wants to hear is the word complex."

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