Researching the researchers;Platform;Opinion

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Pamela Lomax, president of the British Educational Research Association, welcomes the new report into the work of her members, but warns against the dead hand of officialdom stifling creativity

Britain spends only 0.2 per cent of its education budget on research - surely too little for a country that has made the sector such a high priority.

This finding - and the conclusion that more cash needs to be found - was welcomed in Belfast last week where eager hands at the British Educational Research Association annual conference reached out for the long-awaited report that contained it.

BERA had received copies of Excellence in Research in Schools, the review commissioned by the Government and undertaken by the independent Institute for Employment Studies, based at Sussex University. It examined the direction, organisation, funding, quality and impact of educational research.

BERA recognises the value of an independent body doing this work and is satisfied that the review was rigorous and examined complex issues. Government, funders and researchers are criticised where appropriate; but the Sussex team has tried to be fair and has not blamed researchers for problems not of their making.

So, what does the report say? That government must commit itself to evidence-based policy development. BERA welcomes this; previous governments have often ignored research evidence and as a result have formulated policies doomed to failure. The report urges greater coherence in research planning and co-ordination between the various funders. This makes sense - provided that there are ample opportunities for original or "blue-skies" research.

Researchers, policy-makers and teachers need to work together more, says the report. Yes - but we need to distinguish between these different audiences when presenting research results. It is misguided to criticise academic journals for being difficult to read by policy-makers or teachers, when their intended audience is other researchers and their purpose is to invite critique in order to enhance or challenge arguments before wider dissemination. Of course, it is fair to criticise articles in practitioner-based journals if these are written in a style which their audiences will not understand.

The training of researchers is singled out for attention and BERA welcomes this, having begun a series of high-profile training programmes which we hope to see extended.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the report is the high value it puts on empirical research. It sees it as the seed-bed of growth in policy and practice, recognises that it is expensive and argues that national expenditure on educational research should rise. There are other recommendations in the report, however, which, while BERA may support them in principle, need further consideration.

Take three examples. First, there is the suggestion that a national forum should be set up to develop an overall education research strategy. Of course, such a step would help, but there are dangers in too much central control. In many fields of science the most exciting breakthroughs have come from serendipitous discoveries rather than from official strategies. Officialdom must not stifle all creativity.

Second comes the suggestion that the funders of research should encourage researchers to "interpret" their findings for different audiences. One of the strengths of social science is the separation of reporting findings from interpreting them. The transparentness of procedures has enabled different researchers to examine the same data and come up with different interpretations. It would surely be dangerous to inhibit the readers and the users of research by over-emphasising "official" interpretations.

Third is the idea of "centres of excellence". We are proud of the existing centres and would welcome funding for more - but these must not be at the expense of other universities. If education is to continue to develop alongside other university subjects, its lecturers must have scope for research and its students - whether mid-career professionals taking part-time masters' courses or those training to be teachers - need access to the latest research findings. Educational research must not be separated from teacher education in the universities.

BERA has further concerns. The report's brief from the Department for Education and Employment was to look at research in schools in England and so, regrettably, it ignores research on pre-school and post-school learning and seems to deny the present Government's interest in lifelong learning. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are excluded - whereas research recognises few frontiers and indeed globalisation is seen as an important issue.

The report is critical of the lack of impact of research on teachers and argues for better mediation. While we agree that teachers should be helped to identify research needs and to play more active roles, there is too little recognition of the way in which research influences classroom practice without the practitioners necessarily realising.

Nobody puts academic references in their lesson plans to justify their pedagogy; the various task forces do not always acknowledge their debt to research; and examination authorities seldom spell out that their courses and methods of assessment have frequently been developed by researchers.

The Sussex team also ignores the research base of the Government's major policy thrust on school improvement. While many researchers might see government policies as unjustifiably overextending their findings, it is ironic that the source of these ideas - in academic educational research - should not be publicly recognised.

"It is time to move forward," concludes the Sussex report. BERA agrees, and hopes that Excellence in Research on Schools will be a valuable milestone on the road to improvement. "Research, research, research" should be the Government's new maxim if it is to underpin its commitment to education, education, education.

Pamela Lomax is also professor of educational research at Kingston University

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