Let's give proper weight to research;Comment;Opinion

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
England is currently involved in a review of educational research, beginning with an open mind and neutrality, but with the belief that it is not value for money. That is acceptable if the findings can be replicated by others. Whatever happens we can be sure that the findings will be applied to Scotland -probably without further study.

Research has always been a step-bairn in UK education. The Educational Institute of Scotland in the surge of hope following World War I set up a research committee and ran training courses for teachers at weekends.

Those who would study the antecedents of our education system in order to understand its current state should look at the files in the Record Office from 1922 to 1930. At times administrators wrote to one another in Latin, a rather pathetic affectation but understandable where they were upholding their belief that they were not as other men. Cui bono was prominent, roughly translated as "What's in it for me?" For all of them, research challenged authority and could not be countenanced. Today we must challenge authority both for its own good and for the benefit of educational progress. The alternative is pontification. We are at the pontification stage where edicts come from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department sometimes backed by the findings of a selected task group and schools must give effect to them on the "bricks-without-straw" principle, which is very inefficient. The following examples involve examinations and tests justified by the need to raise standards.

The Munn and Dunning committees began it, stemming from disquiet at the Examination Board and with a gestation period until the birth of Standard grade similar to that alleged for the dinosaur. Munn and Dunning work began in 1974 and is not yet all done and dusted.

Next we had the Howie committee spawned by dissatisfaction with the Leaving Certificate. It was longer on analysis than on solutions but threw up two phrases: l"The status quo is not an option." You may not like it but in logic it is always an option.

* The Highers exam is "a two-term dash for growth". Thus the work of primary schools and secondary years 1 to 4 is dismissed with contumely if not with contempt.

Higher Still has developed from Howie and progressing it seems to have been passed to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which is currently asserting that Advanced Higher is equivalent to English A-level. Who needs to know?

Further down the school HMI recently issued "Improving reading at the early stages". It is clearly written, meets the criteria of the Plain English Campaign, provides percentages for categories and itemises findings from its main themes. Yet its findings are so obvious that we have to wonder what the colleges of education have been doing for years, if teachers need this guidance. Its percentages have been so misunderstood and misinterpreted by the media that we need a health warning issued with all percentages.

"Setting targets - raising standards in schools" is hot off the press and is causing many teachers to have recourse to worry beads. A pilot run would seem to be essential. The document founds on the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals to prepare a schools characteristic index and for S5 and S6 on previous attainment at Standard grade. A form of "weighting" is implied here. Weighting is a quagmire in statistics. The free meals criterion will certainly bash Glasgow. It also assumes that every child seeks or fails to seek a free meal for the same reason, which is improbable.

The system of identifying a market of the 10 schools above and below any one school looks like an analogue from the stock market. Individual schools are shown as being at a premium or a discount to that market. This is adequate in commerce where there is continuing change but would be very rigid for schools. There is also a seasoning of "value-added". At the end of it the question becomes, "is it worth the effort?" with the probable answer that it is not. Teachers' time and energy are finite.

At present about pound;2 billion is spent on Scottish education from which pound;1 million goes to research. No other vital industry spends such a meagre fraction. The SOEID suggests about six research topics and invites bids, quasi-democratic but wasteful. It costs about pound;2,000 to prepare a bid. Decisions come from internal groups or from individuals departmentally chosen for task groups chaired by the SOEID.

Research may well be more effective than task groups. It would be cheaper and would "show working", a crucial need in exam answers. Give it a try starting with "family literacy" for the schools characteristic index rather than "free meals". Well, you want parental involvement don't you?

Ian Morris, a former HMI, is an educational consultant.

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