Beyond trivial pursuits

12th September 1997 at 01:00
A senior United States congressman once called for the invention of one-armed education researchers. Their advice would be more useful, he added, because they would be unable to say: "Well, on the one hand ... and then on the other."

Such complaints have been common since the mid-1970s when policy-makers in many Western countries began to realise that the fortunes they had invested in research had not bought the answers to education's most intractable problems. Nevertheless, researchers will be taken aback by this week's damning criticisms by Professor Alan Smithers (page 6). The announcement that the schools inspectorate is investigating their work because it suspects that too much research may be taking place for the "incestuous benefit" of academics rather than schools is equally bad news (page 4).

When Labour won the May election, it looked as if the so-called "discourse of derision" would end. The new Government gave the impression of taking educational research more seriously and David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, acknowledged that "spending on research has been reduced to less than 0.1 per cent of total public spending on education - just one-third of what it was in the 1980s".

But now the research community is reeling from the loss of Pounds 7 million-a-year funding and bracing itself for another report that will probably conclude that it is a waste of space. However, OFSTED may also attract criticism for launching its inquiry. One might ask why it should set up such a study when Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, has already opined that millions of pounds is being wasted on unintelligible research reports that have no practical relevance. In any case, the Teacher Training Agency has built up a detailed dossier on education research, so there is a danger of replicating its work. Asking Dr James Tooley of the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs to conduct the inquiry may also prove ill-advised, because bias will be suspected even if it does not exist.

Michael Bassey, of the British Educational Research Association, is right to insist that such inquiries must be impartial. He is also justified in arguing that it is unfair to expect education researchers to achieve Nobel prize-winning breakthroughs (page 11). But BERA members meeting in York this weekend must know that they cannot defend the status quo.

There are still too many small-scale studies - or trivial pursuits as Bassey has called them - conducted by solitary researchers. Career considerations and the higher education funding system still force researchers to channel too many papers into academic journals where they are read, as one journal publisher admitted last year, "by seven people on average, and one of them is the author's mother". Furthermore, the quality of the work is sometimes unsatisfactory because it is carried out by partially-trained researchers on short-term contracts.

Clearly this training deficiency needs to be addressed. But there should also be a thorough overhaul of how the country's educational research priorities are established. It would be sensible to hand this job over to the widely-representative national forum envisaged by Dr David Hargreaves of Cambridge University. The perennial problem of disseminating findings must also be readdressed. As the Teacher Training Agency has said, written reports may have to be supplemented by CD-Roms, videos and even human contact.

But before any of this begins there should be a proper stocktaking exercise. Because there is a plethora of research-funding bodies no one appears to have a complete list of the research projects that are being undertaken in Britain. This is absurd. We need to know who is researching what - and for what purpose. Dr Tooley is evidently not afraid of a challenge, but this is too big and important a task for one man.

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