Conclusive proof of a tosh offensive

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Is it not hilarious how keen politicians are to quote research evidence, or the lack of it, when it suits their purpose? You would think, when treasured policies are under attack, that politicians are bucking for the Nobel Prize, the respect they start giving to research findings. Suddenly people who have previously shown the curiosity of a gnat about what has been discovered through careful systematic enquiry, start demanding scientific proof. It is a miraculous transformation - Dopey to Isaac Newton in microseconds.

The sequence of events is always the same. The argument goes something like this: "Can we have some money for schools, they're a bit short?" "There is no evidence that money and pupil learning are related."

"There were several big American projects that established a connection. "

"There is no British evidence."

"There were some British studies a few years ago."

"There is no recent British evidence."

"There was a British investigation last year."

"There is no recent British study of the impact of extra money on the learning of nine-year-old left-handed female pole-vaulters in single-sex rural primary schools."

As someone who both does research and also reads a great number of research reports, I am touched by the belated rigour that politicians are now keen to apply to research findings. It is a brilliant ploy to scupper every single request for funding or staffing with the "show me the incontrovertible proof" response. There rarely is conclusive proof of anything in education, as there are few absolute certainties.

The latest use of this device comes in the fatuous argument from Gillian Shephard about class sizes. The only convincing way of providing "scientific" evidence about the effects of class size on children's learning would be to round up a large pool of identical twins, put one of each pair in classes of 40 and the other in classes of 15. Meanwhile a group of identical twin teachers would also be split into two groups. They would use identical materials and methods, holding every other conceivable factor absolutely constant. Since the only difference between the two groups of pupils would be the numbers in each class, children's learning, assuming one could measure it accurately, would reflect the effect of class size. A touch difficult to achieve in the real world, methinks.

So the absence of "conclusive proof" puts the issue of class size into a very large group of other matters for which no such scientific support is available, nor usually asked for. There is no incontrovertible research evidence that if teachers swung from the chandelier pupils would learn better. There is not a smidgen of objective proof that if headteachers break wind in assembly the quality of maths teaching will suffer. For that matter there was no scientific evidence, more's the pity, that choosing a succession of wallies as ministers would wreck the education system, but that didn't stop prime ministers doing it.

The evidence on class size is of different kinds. First of all there is actually some research evidence, mainly American. It seems that you have to get fewer than 20 pupils for the effects to become apparent, but what evidence there is looks persuasive. Also people usually prefer small groups to larger ones. A few years ago an American university split up its large first year as an experiment. Half the students went into one large lecture group; the other half were in small discussion groups. When the researchers followed up the students later, not one person in the large group had opted to study the field any further, but several members of the discussion groups had chosen it as their major subject.

Then there is custom and practice, which is often, though not always, based on intelligent action. If class size doesn't matter, then why don't cabinet ministers ask the private schools that their children attend to step class sizes up to 50? The Government in any case claims that sock-it-to-em traditional teaching methods are superior, and think of the money the parents would save in reduced fees.

Why don't people learn to drive a car in groups of 40 or so? Why do the selfish beggars insist on having a teacher apiece? Imagine the court case if people did learn to drive a car in large groups.

"I'm sorry I crashed into that bus in front, m'lud, but I was trying to remember the lecture we had on the position of the clutch."

"I quite understand the defendant's little problem. Traditional teaching methods are always best, and there is no conclusive evidence that class size matters. Case dismissed."

I think not.

So I've gone off Gillian Shephard a bit. She seems to me to be a very nice person, and to have one big selling point - she isn't called "Baker", "Clarke" or "Patten", which is an enormous plus in my view. On the other hand she is frequently described as having embarked on a "charm offensive". Fine. But a big smile and a warm handshake are poor substitutes for the loss of thousands of teaching jobs.

It is all very well to read stories in the press about how she is "fighting tooth and nail" in the Cabinet for education, but many schools have virtually no money for books, are making teachers redundant, and are seeing class sizes climb disastrously.

If she really feels strongly about what is happening, then she should stand up in the next Cabinet meeting and say: "Knickers to you lot. If you don't find some more cash for education, I'm going."

There may be no incontrovertible scientific proof that this action would make any difference. But the evidence that teachers are fed up of charm and smarm, sick of harangues about being to blame, and insulted by tosh about class size being unimportant, looks rock solid to me.

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