Medicine men have the cure;Research focus

10th September 1999 at 01:00
The DFEE's new system of reviewing and disseminating research will mimic that

used by the medical profession, the British Educational Research Association was told. David Budge reports

EDUCATION researchers are being urged to give their "intellectual and moral support" to the Government's radical new approach to commissioning, reviewing and disseminating research.

Two of Whitehall's most senior education advisers, Professor Michael Barber and Judy Sebba, travelled to the British Educational Research Association conference in Brighton last weekend to spell out the strategy that the Department for Education and Employment is developing. They also reassured their audience that - for perhaps the first time in many years - research really is helping to "inform" the education policy-making process.

The department has, however, made it clear that it wants to improve the quality of research, evaluate it more carefully and publicise it more widely.

The frequently-cited long-term goal is the creation of a world-class education system, but there is also a shorter-term political rationale, as Michael Barber acknowledged.

"The Treasury is increasingly demanding hard evidence that the investment they are making in education is delivering outcomes," he said. "Next year we will be going back to the Treasury for the next three-year funding cycle and we desperately need the best evidence possible."

In the next few months the DFEE will be commissioning two dedicated research centres that will be given three-year funding - of approximately pound;250,000 a year - to investigate the economics of education and the wider benefits of learning.

The DFEE is also keen to encourage more large-scale studies and the kind of "randomly controlled" trials that are common in medicine and agriculture (while recognising the value of qualitative research that is less concerned with facts and figures). This would require children to be randomly allocated to experimental groups.

But perhaps the key change that the DFEE is planning is the establishment of a new system for reviewing and disseminating research. It is setting up an education version of the medical network - known as the Cochrane Collaboration - that prepares, updates and distributes reviews of research.

Cochrane review groups focus on either an area of healthcare such as pregnancy and childbirth or on methodological issues. Each group has four or five editors and a much larger number of reviewers.

The DFEE is seeking a team of researchers to set up the Cochrane-style network.

They will create a database of recently published research, less recent but seminal studies, and ongoing work. They will also register the review groups who will receive a so far unspecified amount of funding from the DFEE.

Judy Sebba recognised that some researchers were suspicious of the Government's motives but added: "The role of the Government is to lead and establish national coherence in the approach, not to assume control of the research agenda."

In fact, she suggested that it is policy-makers' traditional indifference to research findings that continues to be the bigger threat. "We have a considerable challenge in the department to create a culture of expectation that policy-makers will ask for, consider and use research findings in their work. However, recent comments from ministers suggest that they would rather have the evidence than be protected from it even when it conflicts with policy or is inconclusive."

Her audience gave the DFEE proposals a generally warm reception but some researchers were worried that the review groups' funding would be inadequate. There were also some tongue-in-cheek warnings about the danger of "worshipping the ground that agricultural research" is carried out on.

The advocacy of randomly controlled trials may well prove divisive. While some researchers such as Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, of Durham University, spoke passionately in their favour, others were worried about the ethical problems that such research can pose.

The new president of the association, Professor Peter Mortimore, is one influential figure who remains unconvinced. "The recent popularity of experimental approaches - such as random controlled trials - among education civil servants is interesting. I wonder if it would extend to random allocation of pupils to schools in order to test their effectiveness."

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