Editor's comment: Sector's bank of knowledge needs more investment

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Evidence-based research is welcome, but policymakers must act on its findings

A few weeks ago, MPs on the House of Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee announced their plans to run an "evidence check" on a series of government policies. The idea was that they would examine the research behind a range of policies, not just in education, to decide whether the decisions were truly supported by the evidence.

"Evidence-based policy" became popular as a term early this decade, prompting the thought: should there be any other kind? Was Whitehall labouring under hunch-based policymaking in earlier times? Did civil service mandarins consult soothsayers, witch doctors, or try to read the entrails of birds to divine what should be written in part 2, section 19, clause 1 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992?

Cynics might suggest that it sometimes seemed as if they did, but the committee's inquiry will, it is to be hoped, discover whether evidence- based policy is anything more than a catchphrase in Whitehall. But it is only right that FE should be trying to get its own house in order by ensuring that classroom practice and the management of colleges is governed by the best possible knowledge about what works.

Proposals outlined by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service this week will no doubt help. The attempt to increase the involvement and interest of providers by designating them as "laboratories" to test out research, while in its early stages, is welcome. Lecturers in FE should take the opportunity to ensure that research is targeted at solving the problems that they encounter every day.

But there is also a sense of ambitions curtailed. It is acknowledged that research into further education is underfunded compared with the swathes of material produced about schools. With LSIS facing a pound;50 million budget cut, that situation is unlikely to change very soon.

While it is clearly right that gathering together the state of current knowledge and presenting it in a way that practitioners can use is certainly a valuable activity, it is no substitute for increasing that bank of knowledge.

One implication of the move to raise the compulsory participation age for education to 18 should be to equalise the investment in research into FE. While it is just about possible to see that our knowledge of what works in schools should take precedence because they were the only education venues used by everyone, with colleges coming into the compulsory education system that argument now has less force.

And when researchers do identify what works, they must be free to implement it. The Tomlinson report on 14-19 education exemplified some of the best and worst of this Government on education. It commissioned a carefully researched proposal for fundamental reform which had widespread support, and then watered it down beyond all recognition at the first signs of opposition in the press.

Similarly, if a Conservative government is elected, some among its supporters will doubtless call for a return to some form of "traditional education" based on a selective memory of the proposers' own schooldays. One of the party's first tests would be how well it could resist these and focus on the evidence that has no doubt been thoroughly absorbed by one or other of the brains belonging to the shadow skills secretary David Willetts.

Joseph Lee, Reporter, FE Focus; E: joseph.lee@tes.co.uk.


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