The great debate can't take place in a vacuum

28th April 2000 at 01:00
We are all impoverished without sound research into how cycles of deprivation can be overcome, says Brian Boyd

THE letter from Lindsay Paterson ("Open your eyes about poverty", TESS, March 17), in response to Henry Maitles's article on the relationship between poverty and underachievement ("It's poverty that fails them", March 10), came at an interesting time.

Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, has gone out of his way to question the validity and reliability of educational research in Scotland, and the Scottish Executive has signalled an end to its "special relationship" with the Scottish Council for Research in Education. The minister laments "second-rate" work, argues for more "scientific" research and suggests there is "a dearth of measurement in Scottish education by which we can judge what is happening".

Many teachers will be puzzled at these remarks, having had two decades where measurement has been a fixation of successive administrations. Indeed, we could describe it as a culture of numbers where league tables gave way to target-setting and where only those outcomes which could be measured appeared to matter.

Research, national and international, was used selectively and when reputable bodies such as the research council produced reports inconsistent with policies - for instance the Scottish Office-commissioned literature review on setting and mixed ability which found that there was no conclusive evidence one way or the other - they were ignored.

Teachers will have been even more puzzled when prominent educationists such as Maitles and Paterson cannot even agree on whether educational research has been carried out into the effects of poverty on educational underachievement. At the heart of this confusion is the way in which research priorities are decided, the mechanisms for ensuring that the best researchers are involved and, most importantly, how the findings are disseminated.

At present there is a serendipity about the whole research process. Even the Interchange series, arguably the most accessible form of research reporting (eight pages with questions to stimulate thinking and debate), makes much less of an impact than it should because there is no strategy for dissemination. Copies simply land on headteachers' desks, unplanned, unannounced and, as a result, are often unused.

Research may not always give us answers, and this may account for the fact that there is merit in both sides of the Paterson-Maitles argument. Paterson is right to say that there has been research over recent years into the effects of poverty. The Centre for Educational Sociology, in the 1980s, led the field in Scotland through its leaver surveys and its seminal works on school effectiveness. Sally Brown at Stirling was involved in work on the effects of socio-economic status on school and pupil outcomes, while Strathclyde University, along with Peter Mortimore's team from the Institute of Educatio in London, carried out the largest Scottish Office-funded project on school effectiveness in the mid-nineties.

All of these pointed unequivocally to the correlation between poverty and underachievement and replicated many studies from elsewhere in the UK and beyond which have indicated that poverty accounts for up to 70 per cent of the variance in pupil outcomes. There have been other contributions also, notably from the Educational Institute of Scotland, which published a study on poverty and education entitled Breaking Down the Barriers in 1998.

However, this list of research projects and publications does not alter the fact that Henry Maitles is right to argue that we still do not know how best to combat the effects of poverty and social disadvantage. He is right, too, when he argues that blaming schools won't do. Ministers are fond of telling us that "poverty is not an excuse". We know that. No one ever said it was. Now, here in Scotland, we have an initiative with the potential not only to contribute to the research base but to begin to find solutions to the problems.

New community schools have grown out of research evidence on the links between poverty and low attainment, not just here but in the United States, where "full-service schools" have been operating for a decade or more. The Scottish Office document - subtitled "The Prospectus" - is a forward thinking, even radical, analysis and contains within it the possibility of new approaches, drawing together education, health, social work, legal services, housing and voluntary groups in a way which has never really been attempted.

At the same time, there is new research into learning, encompassing thinking skills, learning styles, multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence and accelerated learning, all seen as part of a new, high-technology assault on the intractable problems which have dogged education for generations.

So what is the link between the minister, two academics and new community schools? For me, the key is debate, open, honest and transparent. It is about learning from the findings of research and about a commitment to a collaborative process involving as many of the stakeholders in education as possible. It is also about shedding old rivalries of medical science and social science; of qualitative and quantitative research; of researcher and practitioner.

An open and vigorous debate is the mark of a healthy democracy. We owe it to young people to break the link between disadvantage and underachievement, in the long term by eradicating poverty and in the medium term by making new community schools work. We also owe it to the teaching profession to have an evidence-based approach to school improvement. With political will, a strong SCRE could have a strategic role in ensuring that educational practice is better informed by rigorous research.

Dr Brian Boyd is lecturer in language education, Strathclyde University.

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