Bias fears as right-winger heads inquiry

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Many educational researchers will be unnerved by OFSTED's appointment of Dr James Tooley. David Budge reports

The schools inspectorate has commissioned a controversial right-wing academic to conduct an inquiry into the practical value of publicly-funded educational research.

The revelation that the Office for Standards of Education has invited Dr James Tooley, of Manchester University, to carry out the study is certain to dismay many educational researchers, who are holding their annual conference in York this week.

Although the main focus of the inquiry will be on the usefulness of research, Dr Tooley will also be looking for evidence of political bias. This is the aspect of his study that will cause particular concern because Dr Tooley is director of the training and education unit of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank that was closely associated with the Thatcher governments.

This week Professor Michael Bassey, executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association, said: "While we would welcome any impartial inquiry into educational research we would also be concerned that someone who is known to take a strong political position can have a biased perspective. The standards of fair inquiry must be upheld."

A spokesman for OFSTED said that he would not expect Dr Tooley's research to be coloured by his personal views. Dr Tooley is a free-marketeer who wants to see the school-leaving age reduced to 14 and opposes both the national curriculum and national testing. Two years ago he attracted criticism by suggesting that school examinations could be replaced by IQ tests.

The OFSTED official also said that the agency commissioned studies from a wide range of academics. Researchers are unlikely to be reassured by his explanation of the rationale behind the study. He said: "We want to look at the value for money of current educational research I how much of it actually feeds into schools and how much of it is for the rather incestuous benefit of the research community - to put it rather crudely."

A further worry is that Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, has been one of the most outspoken critics of educational research. In his annual lecture in February he accused academics of mystifying the business of teaching with "woolly, simplistic or otherwise corrupt ideas". He quoted the example of a professor who had delivered an "impossibly abstract" speech about the "intense problematic of primary pedagogy".

Dr Tooley's report, which is due to be presented in January, may not echo such conclusions, however. Dr Tooley is a radical thinker who is not easy to stereotype. He has criticised some educational initiatives dear to the Right, such as the Assisted Places Scheme. Furthermore, his own area of specialism - the philosophy of education - has often been criticised for its lack of relevance to the classroom.

He is a BERA member and is due to deliver two papers - on education vouchers and the implications of feminist educational research - at this weekend's conference. Nevertheless, he has previously said that educational research should not exist within its own ghetto and become divorced from the real concerns of teachers and parents.

BERA conference reports, pages 10, 11 and 23 Alan Smithers on educational research, page 6;COMMENT,PAGE 18

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