Ladders into walled garden of research;Opinion

19th March 1999 at 00:00
In crude terms, there are three ways to pigeonhole educational research: it can inform policy-making, illuminate teaching practice, or it can score funding points in the Research Assessment Exercise which shapes academic league tables.

The good project may succeed on all three counts, but inevitably the impact of any research report is related to its intended audience. If you are bent on addressing your academic peers, your findings may not translate easily to the classroom or the Cabinet Office.

As the Institute for Employment Studies summed up crisply in its report last summer: "Most education research does not impinge much on policy or practice." The Department for Education and Employment has been swift to act on the IES's advice, to strengthen the connections between research, policy development and classroom practice.

Although the policy-makers' reawakened interest in research is welcome, the IES's verdict caused some upset in the research world, and confirmed a few suspicions for those of us outside it.

The secret garden of the curriculum was long ago guarded by teachers, but the IES report revealed that a walled garden of research was thriving, though possibly tangled with weeds.

Education research does not impinge much on policy or practice, because so much of it is cut off from the outside world. A flow-chart might demonstrate this closed circle: the first arrow joins researcher to funder; findings published in academic journal directed at researcher's peer group; high-priced journal sold to university libraries; read by a handful of people. A large chunk of educational publishing is thus expensively sustained because the next arrow leads from publication to research assessment points and back to university funding.

Teachers have a key role to play in research into what works best in the classroom, and its dissemination. The highest quality research won't get out of the seminar and into the classroom unless teachers are convinced of its practical value, and sufficiently involved to disseminate it through their own schools and networks. This can happen if teachers become researchers or if, in search of skills and confidence, they join an academic or local consortium, or at least are included as users at the commissioning or review stages of a project.

David Hargreaves, of Cambridge University, has been a powerful advocate for this practitioner role, and it is a theme running strongly through the Government's new Green Paper as well as the IES report. Meanwhile, the Teacher Training Agency has been pushing through some promising pilot projects.

So teachers are beginning to accept that theory may have something to offer them at the sharp end, and senior officials to acknowledge that they want an evidence-base for future policy-making.

Junior minister Charles Clarke is keen on his research brief, and the IES recommendations for a more coherent national framework are being translated into action through an education research forum.

Whatever researchers might feel about the invasion of their secret garden, these are heady days after a Thatcher era when research evidence was never allowed to intrude on dogma. The main danger now is that the very strength of the DFEE conversion to the power of research might lead to over-much central control, and that its preoccupation with broad policy issues could be at the expense of the practitioner role.

The question is especially delicate this week as the TTA undergoes its five-yearly review, with an implicit agenda to switch some (or all?) of its work to the new General Teaching Council or back into the DFEE. Giving research to the GTC could be a boost for teacher professionalism, but does the department want to seize another power-base? Watch this space.

Patricia Rowan was editor of The TES from 1989 to 1997

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