From the Editor - Not 'enemies of promise' but not credible either

29th March 2013 at 00:00

Michael Gove doesn't shrink from a fight. Last week, in typical knockabout fashion, he laid into the "modern enemies of promise", the "guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need". He knew exactly who they were: "helpfully, 100 of them put their name to a letter to The Independent" attacking his curriculum reforms.

They were typical of the academics who had ruined our schools, according to Gove. Militants like them had run university education departments for years, developing dumbed-down curricula and indoctrinating trainee teachers in clapped-out dogma.

Left-wing academics, the "blob" that supposedly dominates education, are cherished Tory villains. They are frequently invoked to explain inconvenient obstacles to reform or rustled up as convenient straw men. Of course, it helps if a few of them out themselves as right-on lefties, as the Independent correspondents did. It's even more useful if they then frame their opposition in an inelegant letter with suspect grammar. It's terribly comforting when one's enemies conform to one's prejudices.

But the notion that there is a widespread academic campaign dedicated to thwarting the government's agenda is a myth. The idea that such congenitally unruly people as academics could form a coherent opposition to anything is mildly preposterous. There is undoubtedly fragmented hostility. There is inertia. There is conservatism. But there is no "blob". It's much more serious than that.

The problem with so many university education departments isn't that they're packed to the rafters with unreconstructed Marxists. The problem is that too many churn out research that is threadbare, irrelevant, unquantifiable, impenetrable and forgettable. It is usually divorced from the teachers who should benefit from it, rarely involves them and makes little effort to engage them. It's telling, for instance, that where universities have opened or sponsored schools the initiative usually lies with departments other than the education faculty. It's hard to think of another discipline being willing to so cavalierly offload the supposed object of its research.

This isn't to say that there aren't excellent educational researchers or departments, but it is interesting that the more far-sighted are recruiting economists, statisticians and others who do not have a purely educational background. One of the best analyses of the unsatisfactory state of research is medic Ben Goldacre's recent report, Building Evidence into Education. Goldacre advocates empowering teachers to participate in research and adopting the randomised trials common in medicine. While he accepts that these have their limitations and are not always suitable, he makes a pretty persuasive case and shows how they have been used successfully in other social sciences.

The reaction from much of the education establishment was predictably tepid. "Flimsy", "simplistic" and - the ultimate academic put-down - "journalistic" were typical responses.

The arch dismissals are illuminating. They suggest that too many educationalists think they can plod on regardless. That's a pity. Educational research has a credibility problem. Unless academics address that, their "findings" will continue to be treated with as much reverence as the latest dieting fad.

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