Beware the relegation of research

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Caroline Gipps warns against prising Pounds 7 million off the education research budget

Changes are threatening the funding and management of research in education, but so far they have received little publicity. When the Higher Education Funding Council for England published the outcome of its review of research funding in February, it became clear that education had been relegated to the lowest of the council's three cost bands for quality-related research.

In all previous consultation documents education had been allocated to the higher, intermediate cost band for subjects involving a significant technical, experimental or practice-based element.

The effect of demoting education to the lower band will be to reduce by 30 per cent - or Pounds 7 million - each year the core grant that will be available for educational research across the university sector from 199798. At the same time, the funding council has removed a further Pounds 3.5 million - or 13 per cent - of the quality research funds allocated to education in order to support a joint Teacher Training Agency initiative.

These actions have been taken in an atmosphere coloured by a heavily-publicised report by Professor David Hargreaves that much of educational research is of little value, is not cumulative, and is not used by practitioners.

As a member of the council's research assessment exercise panel for education and a long-standing educational researcher, some comment seems appropriate. First, it is true that the quality of research undertaken in a number of institutions - those graded 1 or 2 in the recent assessment - is not high. However, such institutions are ineligible for quality research funding. More importantly, the level of work conducted in this minority of institutions should not divert us from the high-quality research continuing in top-rated departments.

The 29 institutions rated 5*, 5 or 4 for education research are engaged on research which is of high quality and in many cases extremely practical, and this activity is worth protecting.

Furthermore, if "education, education, education" is to mean anything, then surely, instead of downgrading education as a subject, we should be upgrading it, particularly at university level.

The TTA has plans of its own for educational research. It is funding teacher researchers from its own small budget; it has a pilot scheme to set up research consortia with universities and local authorities; and there is the joint initiative with the HEFC for "pedagogic research in education, directed at researchers and practitioners in further and higher education as well as schools".

This last move, involving Pounds 3.5 million in 199798, seems to have been made without any consultation or negotiation. This clearly raises issues of accountability for both the funding council and the agency. It also has longer-term implications for the basic funding of educational research in universities, and the infrastructure needed to support it.

It is unclear whether similar sums will be allocated to the joint initiative for each of the next four years but, if so, this would imply a transfer of Pounds 14 million of research funds.

Taken with the decision to relegate education to the lowest cost band, the entire sector is likely to suffer further cuts in real funding over the period. This will have a significant impact on the number of staff that departments of education can employ, and their role, which many of those in the system seem not to have realised.

The TTA is behaving like a recent convert to a new religion: it has "discovered" research-based in classrooms, and focused on the realities of daily classroom life. Like any new convert, the agency is very keen but it seems to forget that the staff of university departments of education work with teachers and in schools all the time; in fact they wrote the book on teacher research and school-based inquiry.

The first batch of the agency's teacher researchers had either learned about research through doing Masters or PhD degrees at university departments of education, or had to receive considerable help and assistance from them. Hence the move to establish consortia which may involve university departments of education. But will departments be able to provide such support in the face of reductions in core funding?

Significant changes are also taking place in the research agendas of three major agencies: the Department for Education and Employment, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (as was) and the Economic and Social Research Council.

The DFEE has undergone a significant change in approach to research, no doubt following the merger of the Departments of Education and Employment (among government departments, educa-tion has had a low priority for research while employment has always seen research as an important element of its strategy).

During the summer of 1996 the DFEE ran a series of four research liaison seminars in the areas of pre-16 education, 16-19s, adults in the labour market and developments in the labour market, and it has drawn on these to help formulate its research programme. The fact that the DFEE is not only planning a research programme but discussing its potential direction and content with members of the research community and others is very much to be welcomed.

SCAA, too, had shown a shift in its attitude to research with regular meetings of researchers involved in assessment, which one hopes will continue in its new merged guise. There is a commitment to more open evaluation and to some research on underlying issues.

The Economic and Social Research Council now has an important focus on users and impact, together with a theme-driven, applied research programme. We thus have a system of funding in which three major players are drawing closer together.

It is clear that we need co-ordination across the different funding agencies in addressing priorities for educational research. Professor Hargreaves's suggestion of a national forum which would play a role in determining and co-ordinating an agenda of priorities is a useful one.

Perhaps such a forum would also be allowed to debate the plans of the HEFC and the TTA. But the traditional freedom of universities to engage in research which may be politically unacceptable or of a theoretical nature is crucially important, and that route to educational research must not be lost nor allowed to wither on the vine. Any significant shift in funding for educational research must be planned strategically and enacted intelligently.

Professor Caroline Gipps is dean of research at the London Institute of Education

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