Don't shoot the researcher

20th November 1998 at 00:00
SCHOOL EFFECTIVENESS FOR WHOM?
Edited by Roger Slee and Gaby Weiner with Sally Tomlinson
Falmer Press #163;14.95

The findings of educational research are written up in quite different ways to target three separate audiences: practitioners such as heads and teachers; policy-makers ; and the research community itself.

The research community is interested in the methodology of a study as well as in its substantive findings. Professional criticism of process provides a sounding board for researchers and offers an opportunity for a reappraisal of a study which helps to progress methodology and theory.

However, policy-makers and practitioners who observe or become involved in these academic wrangles sometimes lose confidence in all research findings and question the value of educational research per se. This is unfortunate and the research community probably needs to try to ensure that the mode of publication and its intended audience are appropriately matched.

School Effectiveness for Whom? is an example of the mode of writing in which researchers criticise other researchers. The book is an edited collection of 13 chapters written by well-known British and Australian academics. The editors, in their introduction, argue that these chapters demonstrate that school effectiveness research "is undermined by epistemic and methodological reductionism", uses "political opportunism and the discourse of performativity" and that "effectiveness models favour the privileged and punish the disadvantaged".

Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on your point of view - many of the chapters fail to prove the point. Indeed, some chapters address school effectiveness only peripherally.

Sheila Riddell and her colleagues have some interesting things to say about small-scale qualitative studies. Margaret Brown's account of the difficulties of interpreting the Third International Maths and Science Survey is valuable, as are Stephen Ball's comments on developments in the sociology of education. Gerald Grace's account of Catholic issues in effectiveness, Bob Spooner's sad story of the outcome of inspections by the Office for Standards in Education and Sally Tomlinson's summary of the end of Hackney Downs' Boys' School provide some fascinating and informative insights into the impact of external decisions on school communities. I particularly recommend reading the chapter by Hugh Lauder and his colleagues on the limitations and capabilities of effectiveness. This is one of the most thoughtful critical pieces about school effectiveness - raising important conceptual and methodological issues - that I have encountered.

A number of the other chapters, however, are disappointing. Some are tedious: others are over polemical. Few of the authors actually seem to have read many of the studies they set out to criticise. (None, for instance, cites all the major empirical studies that have been undertaken in England, none refers to the large-scale Scottish study which has been discussed at the major research conferences over the past three years and none provides an overview).

The book also illustrates how the trend, promoted by spin doctors, of searching for a scapegoat appears to have rubbed off. Thus, we have one group of academics blaming researchers for the way politicians have used the latter's findings. This is quite unfair. Seeing researchers as directly responsible for the creation of any policies demonstrates an ignorance about what influences policy formulation. It also suggests an incomplete reading of what many school effectiveness researchers have published.

The limits of school influence have been spelled out and researchers have been among the most vociferous critics of the divisive and inequitable effects of league tables and other marketisation strategies.

Most edited collections are of uneven quality. This book is no exception.While, overall, it falls short of the editors' claims a, some chapters advance the critique - and thus the development - of a field of research close to the heart of the process of schooling and, therefore, of significance to both policy makers and practitioners.

Professor Peter Mortimore is director of London's Institute of Education and author of "The Road to Improvement; Reflections on School Effectiveness" (Swets and Zeitlinger).

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