Research on the cheap

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Educational researchers in Scotland have not been assaulted (or insulted) like those in the south where David Hargreaves told the Teacher Training Agency that much of their work was irrelevant and second-rate. But there is concern here, too, and it was expressed in sessions at the Scottish Educational Research Association's conference. There was a worry that many senior figures had opted out of the conference (Jotter, back page), but more deep-seated are the fears about the state and direction of the research culture.

That is despite encouraging signs from schools. Many teachers accept that research studies hold messages for classroom practice. Some schools are even encouraging staff to engage in answering questions thrown up by their teaching: teams from two Edinburgh schools, James Gillespie's High and Mary ErskineStewart's Melville junior school, gave presentations from their "action research" programmes.

But professional researchers fear that small-scale and practically oriented studies like those undertaken by teachers are becoming the norm elsewhere at the expense of adequately resourced two or three-year projects of national or international importance. Funding does not exist to cover the number of people interested in or contractually obliged to undertake research. The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, the most regular port of call for research teams, offers only a few contracts a year, and these are desperately contested by universities and colleges, not to mention the private survey firms also in the market. The search for funding takes energies better spent on surveys, analyses and writing reports.

The SERA conference showed the ill effects of expecting staff in the former colleges of education to add research to their duties. Too many of the results are slight and bear little relation to true research. They are either surveys of a problem, evaluations of an initiative or exercises in curricular development. They may be useful but pose as research only because higher education funding hangs on a research portfolio.

It is folly to classify such work alongside major projects like the schools effectiveness research being conducted at the Quality in Education Centre and the Institute of Education. Well funded initiatives involving several years' work - grounded in theory, taking account of other work in the field, extensive in survey - may be too infrequent these days. But the eventual results are likely to be more significant than those of limited forays. The professional researchers of the future need training and they will not get it in a climate of trivialisation.

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