Evidence-based education policy - what an idea!

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Are we brave enough to let facts, not fiction, determine the future direction of schools?

As teachers know, an awful lot of the debate about education isn't troubled with such inconvenient things as facts. So while it is gratifying that the clamour for evidence-based research is growing (analysis, pages 26-27 and comment, page 35), it is also astonishing that it has taken so long or that it should be seen in any way as radical. Would this be the case in any other area of public policy?

One reason why evidence has often been disregarded is obvious: in education, unlike law, medicine or social work, everyone is an expert because everyone has had prolonged and intimate experience of it. Childhood setbacks or triumphs are keenly remembered and seem far more real and convincing than any amount of research. Teaching is cursed by personal prejudice and anecdote.

However, the profession is not helped by the patchy record of researchers. Studies that rely on tiny samples, or that are strangers to quantitative research, or that restate the bleeding obvious in language that is anything but, do not help. In the university pecking order, education does not rank very highly. Hardly any vice-chancellors, for instance, hail from an education faculty. It is not totally surprising that the one piece of research that, arguably, has had more impact on education than any other in the past decade - Professor Nicholas Barr's on tuition fees - was done by an economist.

Nor can teachers rely on much of a collective memory. There is no museum of education; no modern general history of British education - just plenty of polemics. In which case, how often are "new" teaching nostrums really unremembered solutions practised by previous generations?

Of course, the biggest reason for the absence of evidence from much educational debate owes more to political calculation than academic carelessness. Politicians prefer it that way. It is easier for the Government to dismiss Professor David Nutt's findings on ecstasy and cannabis as politically naive than to be brave and put them into practice. It is unlikely that a Conservative government would behave differently. Would Tory ministers with decided views on what pupils should be taught, for instance, be prepared to be contradicted by a truly independent qualifications authority whose assessment owed more to facts than ideology or nostalgia?

Perhaps, just perhaps, the emerging cross-party consensus that the profession must have more autonomy if it is to deliver will usher in a new era of evidence-based policy. Autonomous teachers have to be informed teachers, after all. That will not end the debate, just move it on to a more sensible level. Which questions are the right ones to ask? Which issues have to be addressed urgently? How will the answers be evaluated?

In that glad, confident morning, there may will be something else to disturb the peace. How would the profession respond if future research showed that Sats at KS2 were more effective in raising pupil attainment than teacher assessment? Or that league tables, inconveniently, were beneficial? Now that would be interesting.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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