Leaders of the pack;Interview;Pamela Robinson;Alan Smithers;People;Briefing

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Frances Rafferty meets Smithers and Robinson, the dedicated education research duo.

It was a chat over the garden fence that led to one of education's most durable double acts. Pamela Robinson had been talking to her neighbour, who said there was a job going at the Centre for Education and Employment at nearby Manchester University, where he worked. He offered to take her curriculum vitae in to Alan Smithers.

There were actually two jobs going and when Dr Robinson arrived for the interview she was offered the lower-grade post. She held out for the better job - and the rest, as they say, is history.

The duo has been at the forefront of education policy for the past 15 years and is famous for questioning the value of vocational qualifications. They are now credited with making the general national vocationalqualification and national vocational qualification more acceptable. They have also led the field in research in teacher supply and subject shortages.

Professor Smithers, who started his academic life as a plant physiologist, has become a well-known expert with strong opinions on most education issues. He set up the centre, which concentrates on applied research, during his 20-year stint at Manchester University. Dr Robinson has taken a lower-profile role, crunching the figures.

They depend on outside commissions and say that their experience has given them a nose for issues that are likely to become important.

Fellow academics can be sniffy. They say that the centre does not always follow its research through beyond a commission. One former colleague said:

"Alan is very good, but he should stick to talking about what he knows."

And Pamela agrees - up to a point. "Pamela is constantly trying to rein me in," says Professor Smithers. "She says we should stick to what our research tells us - but I can't always do that.

"No one minds about carrot-tissue cultures. People do care passionately about education. It's hard to set aside your own views and offer a dispassionate view based upon evidence if you are drawn too much into comment."

But he does defend their policy-orientated research, which needs to be done quickly and in time for clients' deadlines. "Academic papers were not the right vehicles for saying the right things to the right people," he says. "We want our findings to go out to teachers and the policy-makers who do not read the educational journals.

"The results need to be obtained quickly and the information is often in a disposable form. Policy is evolving all the time and often politicians can't wait for research to catch up. For example, comprehensives came on stream before they were properly evaluated."

The centre also claims influence in other areas. Its work led to the revision of national curriculum technology, and Professor Smithers says his advice may be responsible for the Liberal Democrats' policy of pledging to add 1p to income tax (since revised to "if necessary") to pay for their education policies.

Clients have included the Leverhulme Trust, the Engineering Council, government departments, political parties, teacher organisations and the New Zealand government.

The centre has published reports on teacher supply and recruitment, science and technology, mixed arts and science A-levels, vocational qualifications and shortage subjects.

Professor Smithers may be regarded as a traditionalist in the present climate, but he does recall a Conservative minister saying that he should declare himself a member of the Labour party.

The minister in question? Alan Howarth, an education minister for both Conservative and Labour governments who is now a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Smithers and Robinson both come from working-class backgrounds. Professor Smithers was born in London's East End. His father was a fish packer and his mother worked in a sweet factory. During the war the young Alan lived on fish and Turkish Delight.

He's not sure how much the diet contributed to his precocious intelligence. He went, via grammar school, to King's College, London, and became a professor at Manchester University at the age of 37, adding a second PhD and other qualifications on the way.

His proud mother once boasted to another local mum that her Alan was now a professor, only to learn that the woman's own son was a millionaire.

Dr Robinson trained as a geography teacher, working in schools in London and the North-west. After the birth of her daughter, she completed an MSc followed by a PhD in economic geography.

"I'm suspicious of education being used as a tool of social engineering," says Professor Smithers. "We both came from working-class backgrounds and were unaware of any barriers or social divisions that worked against us. What was important was to have a good education and to be able to test my ability against high-quality exams."

Recent years have seen the centre on the move. In Manchester it became a victim of its own success. The team increased to 14 and had up to eight projects on the go at once. But they felt that research quality was suffering and have since scaled down the operation.

From Manchester they moved to Brunel University. In the competitive higher education sector, it was seen as a coup for Brunel to have such big names on board. But it didn't work out.

Smithers and Robinson found the environment "not intellectually fertile". Dr Robinson also found that her other duties - lecturing and administration - got in the way of research.

Now they have decamped to Liverpool University, in grand premises in a converted Georgian terrace on Abercromby Square.

The pair's adjoining office doors make it clear that their partnership will continue to flourish.

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