Don't lose the confidence to ask why

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Nearly 1,000 researchers gathered in Seville two weeks ago for a conference that mixed flamenco and flying cockroaches with a desire to fan awareness of their work across Europe. David Budge reports.

The following is an edited version of James Calderhead's presidential speech to the Seville conference: One of the interesting features of educational research in Europe is the different ways in which it is perceived in different countries. In some Scandinavian countries, educational research seems to be comparatively well-funded and researchers generally play a significant role in educational policy-making, though funding has declined substantially over the past 20 years, even in Sweden.

In some Eastern European countries, researchers are also playing key roles in helping to design new educational systems that are built on democratic principles. In several European countries, however, educational research is neither well-funded nor highly regarded.

A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development refers to the "crisis of confidence" in the value of the knowledge base produced by researchers and also suggests that finance for educational RD is variable between countries but marginal as a proportion of the amount spent on either education or research as a whole (in each case often a small fraction of 1 per cent). Several recent overviews of research have also commented on the apparently low status of educational research and its lack of regard by practitioners and policy-makers.

Given this widespread doubt about the utility of educational research, what arguments can be put forward in its defence? In most European countries between 4 and 8 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product is said to be spent on education. This lends a strong financial argument for educational research in terms of its role in maintaining accountability and efficiency. Similarly, the costs of unemployment, of crime, of family support might arguably be reduced if schools were more effective in preparing young people for the responsibilities of citizenship and equipping them with the skills required in employment and adult life.

In addition, there are important social and moral reasons for researching and better understanding our educational systems which, in many ways, shape people's lives and the nature of our future society. Greater European collaboration in educational research has much to offer. Educational policies and practices are becoming increasingly mobile across borders, and as a result, research agendas appear to be becoming more uniform. Consequently, it is arguable that collaboration may lead to more substantial and meaningful conclusions.

At present, perhaps partly because of language difficulties, educational researchers are often unaware of other research similar to their own which is being pursued in other countries. The development of various educational research networks in Europe is relatively recent, offering opportunities for the exchange of procedures and findings as well as for comparative educational studies. Similarly, several European abstracting journals are beginning to help disseminate research findings, enabling researchers to draw more readily upon each other's work.

European research is, however, still under-represented in the major international journals and in terms of its international impact compared to North American work. The majority of the high-circulation educational research journals are published in the United States. Journals of national educational research associations in Europe in several cases have little circulation outside of their country of origin.

Researchers also need to be more proactive in their search for funds. The Maastricht Treaty expresses a European commitment to research and development in education, and the European Commission may become an important source of funds. There are also other sources of funding to develop networks and co-ordinate expertise that are becoming increasingly available to researchers in selected areas. Well- co-ordinated research groups may also find it easier to tap private foundations, which often seem to be keener to fund prestigious groups of researchers with a track record, rather than supporting the lone researcher or lone institution.

Another reason for looking towards Europe is the need to strengthen research through staff development. This requires investment and co-ordination. The sharing of expertise across Europe, the development of training programmes, the exchanges that occur in European conferences and meetings, could all have a beneficial effect upon researchers' collective expertise and the subsequent quality of research.

A career structure for researchers, with opportunities to develop appropriate skills, is urgently needed, too. Postgraduate training and post-doctoral research opportunities are undeveloped, and there is a need to consider not just the thorough preparation of researchers in methodology, but the ways in which research might relate to different user-groups.

The creation of centres of excellence in particular areas or types of educational research might also help to ensure the continuous development of expertise and provide centres where specialised knowledge and skills might be sought and disseminated.

The reasons for not funding educational research in the past have often focused on quality and lack of impact. Greater collaboration across Europe can clearly help to address these issues, and may as a result secure for educational research a more prominent and effective role in guiding future decision-making.

James Calderhead is professor of education at the University of Bath

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