Politicians, too, should do their homework

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Michael Bassey laments the parties' disregard for the role of research in formulating policy

Education featured prominently in the general election, but educational research hardly got a mention. Am I guilty of special pleading in expecting that the party manifestos would make some mention of the role of research in developing education? I think not.

Take a policy issue for which there seems to be consensus from the three main parties - the powers of local education authorities.

In their manifesto, the Conservatives stated: "We will require local authorities to delegate more of schools' budgets to the schools themselves. " Similarly, Labour stated: "Local education authorities I will be required to devolve power, and more of their budgets, to heads and governors."

And the Liberal Democrats said: "We will devolve as many powers as possible to schools and give them more control over their budgets."

This transfer of power from LEAs to schools is a legitimate action, but is it prudent? Have those who advocate it examined the likely, and possible, consequences for authorities and schools across the country? How will it affect the education of children?

Have the politicians considered the findings of Stephen Ball, Lesley Henshaw, Hilary Radnor and Carol Vincent in their report Local Education Authorities: Accountability and Control, funded by the Rowntree Foundation?

This research found that while headteachers and governors were virtually unanimous in their "sense of empowerment and enhanced effectiveness", LEA councillors and officers expressed "serious reservations about the extent of autonomy and degree of control exercised by headteachers, and the lack of appropriate skills, unrepresentativeness and lack of accountability of governing bodies".

The transfer of power is clearly more complicated than the party manifestos imply. The research shows that the concept of an "LEA" is problematic since at least three different models can be identified.

The annual expenditure on educational research in the UK is about Pounds 66 million. The recent authoritative handbook by Cocks and Bentley (Pounds 300 Billion: Government Spending: the Facts, Data Books, 1996) puts the current annual total of government spending (national and local) on education at Pounds 37.8bn. Hence the percentage of national educational expenditure that goes on research is 0.17 per cent.

We can only judge whether this sum is sufficient by considering the gaps in current educational knowledge.

* Nursery vouchers: do we have sufficient understanding of the educational needs of different three- and four-year-olds and sufficient wisdom on how best to respond to those needs?

* Homework: do we know enough about how much homework is set for different children of different ages, of how they respond and of what educational benefit they get from it? Do we know whether their teachers can effectively handle the idea of increasing levels of homework?

* Teaching and research in higher education: we know too little about how teaching, learning, research and scholarship interact. For example, does a university lecturer teach more effectively if involved in research?

* The relationship between education and economic growth: where is the up-to-date evidence that putting increasing stress on the nation's teachers (at all levels) increases the nation's economic prosperity? Or is it simply a myth?

* Effects of parents' workloads on children's educational development: the research base of the recent Panorama programme on this subject was embarrassing - we simply do not know.

Although education featured as a high priority in the three main parties' manifestos, there was no mention of the relationship between educational development and educational research. What is this relationship?

Researchers should prepare the theoretical ground for decisions, provide critiques of intentions, and conduct evaluations of actions so that improvements can be introduced in future decisions.

This is a cyclical process familiar to teachers who engage in action research: it needs to become part of the operational planning of educational policy-makers.

The following statement is what we might have hoped to read in the election manifestos: "Our new educational policies will draw on the best available evidence from research and the considered opinions of teachers and educational managers.

"These policies will be evaluated by independent research teams and modified where appropriate in the light of research findings.

"While respecting the autonomy of universities and other higher education institutions, we will expect some of their research to illuminate issues of national consequence and to criticise constructively policy developments, thus contributing to the growth of excellence in our educational system."

The Labour party manifesto can now be seen as the national programme for action. The new Government has at least 16 educational intentions, each of which has an important research dimension where the critical and creative skills of researchers are needed.

If such an ambitious programme is to succeed, it will need the concerted efforts of politicians, policy-makers, teachers and researchers.

The recent report of the Literacy Task Force set up by David Blunkett and chaired by Professor Michael Barber, A Reading Revolution: how we can teach every child to read well (February 1997), has well illustrated the way that these four groups can interact successfully to produce coherent policies.

The stated aim of the British Educational Research Association is "to sustain and promote a vital research culture in education". Its members await the call to play their part in the new national programmes of educational action.

Professor Michael Bassey is executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association and a senior research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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