Ministers to reform research

28th August 1998 at 01:00
MINISTERS are expected to act to improve the quality and relevance of much of the education research produced by university departments in the wake of a critical report commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment.

According to the review, published this week, the 65 million poundsspent annually on education research often provides neither reliable findings that could be of use to policy-makers, nor material of practical use to teachers. It says: "The burgeoning forest of academic research and papers appears to be increasingly impenetrable to an academic audience, let alone the wider education community."

In part, the findings by a team from the Institute for Employment Studies at Sussex University confirm the more limited study by right-wing academic James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University.

Professor Tooley produced a report for the Office for Standards in Education last month. It concluded that fewer than half of the articles he studied in academic journals appeared to be based on rigorous research.

The latest report suggests ministers should establish an independent education research forum - representing academics, government agencies, funding bodies and teachers - to develop a national strategy. Currently, two-thirds of research studies are determined by researchers, says the report. The distribution of grant between about 100 university departments is partly to blame for fragmented research. The report points to a lack of overviews and studies over time.

In accepting the findings, education minister Tessa Blackstone said the Government intended to ensure greater involvement by teachers and policy-makers in setting the agenda for research. Ministers would be examining the feasibility of concentrating funding in 10 to 20 centres of excellence.

She said: "I want to see more high-quality research focused on improving classroom practice and greater emphasis on spreading findings so that teachers and policy-makers know what works."

Research funds are mainly distributed on the basis of an assessment exercise carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council, which has come under criticism for its failure to involve sufficiently policy-makers or practitioners in content and design.

The Institute for Employment Studies scrutiny was carried out through a literature review; interviews with those who use the research; a call for evidence from researchers and education authorities and through focus groups.

The report recommends that the main funders should consult on a strategic approach and encourage competitive tendering for commissions. It also suggests setting up an information unit for users.

As well as proposing that funding should be weighted more in favour of empirical research, the report also questions whether existing spending is adequate.

Excellence in Research on Schools by Jim Hillage, Richard Pearson, Alan Anderson and Penny Tamkin, The Institute for Employment Studies is available from DFEE Publication, PO Box 5050, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6ZQ.

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