Running on Battle of Britain spirit

11th June 2004 at 01:00
The Government denies it has withdrawn money for teacher research. Critics say that, by putting it directly into school budgets, the funding has effectively been lost. Biddy Passmore adjudicates

Does the Government really want teaching to be a research-based profession? If so, some would say ministers are going an odd way about it.Take Best Practice Research Scholarships. Announced with a flourish by David Blunkett in 2001 as part of an exciting new strategy to boost teachers' professional development, these two-year grants to teachers were widely hailed as an excellent idea - despite teething problems with the administration.

A thousand scholarships per year, worth up to pound;2,500, were intended to pay for supply cover and assistance from research mentors while teachers explored everything from managing lunchtime behaviour to introducing thinking skills. But the pound;3 million-a-year programme had only been going for three years before the Government pulled the plug last year.

Only an experiment, said ministers. We think it would give schools greater flexibility if they paid for research themselves out of the funds for professional development that we are delegating to them.

To which teachers reply, what funds? The same funds that are to pay for training 50,000 extra support staff? And how can such an apparently central aspect of education policy be left to the vagaries of squeezed school budgets and heads' priorities?

They suspect that teachers' professional development is being sacrificed in the desperate rush to fund workforce reform. As David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, told his annual conference last month: "The investment of pound;100 million in support staff training this year is right. But what about the needs of teachers?"

John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers agrees. "The Government is robbing Peter to pay Paul," he says.

At the same time as teachers have lost a valuable source of funds for school-based research, many research departments in higher education have lost the means to support them.

The most recent assessment of research in higher education dealt cruelly with university education departments: 50 out of the 81 entered for the assessment exercise in 2001 failed to win a good research rating of 4 or 5 (1 and 2 are poor, progressing up through 3A, 3B, 4, and 5 to 5*). Those deemed to be below that standard have received no funds for research from the Higher Education Funding Council since September. They include some of the best-known names in teacher education and research, such as the University of Surrey Roehampton (rated 3A).

The British Educational Research Association (Bera) estimates that about 80 per cent of teacher education now takes place in institutions that receive no core funding for research. And Bera studies suggest that the institutions that have lost funding are those most actively involved in working with teachers in schools.

John Furlong of Oxford University, president of Bera, says the cuts made him "very concerned about the future of teacher research". Many departments had used the research funding to pay for one or two research assistants, whose job was often to work with teacher-researchers as mentors.

"The links haven't suddenly ceased," he said. "Institutions are finding different ways of keeping things going - a Battle of Britain spirit prevails. But most have had to redirect their energies to keeping the funding of posts going rather than focusing on teacher research."

Teachers undertaking research degrees part-time need access to a local higher education institution. But geographical spread could be lost as the research cuts begin to bite.

Professor Furlong points out that in the North-west, for example, one of the key providers of teacher education, St Martin's Lancaster, has lost funding because its research was given a rating of 3B.

The assessment of research quality in education had been much harsher than in other disciplines, said a researcher from a 3A-rated department in the South-east. The Government's policies do not add up, she remarks. "At a point where we should have been building capacity in education research, we have been knee-capped."

But others take a less gloomy view. Meryl Thompson of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers laments the loss of scholarships and research funding, but comments: "I don't think teacher research will stop because the benefits of moving in this way are now so well-established."

Networked learning communities, created by the National College for School Leadership, also supported school-based research to some extent. Carol Adams, chief executive of the General Teaching Council, was even more positive. Best Practice Research Scholarships had been very important as "pump priming", but she did not think their cessation was holding back "quite a tide of interest among teachers".

"We should move on now to a system-wide engagement of teachers in research," she added. Their involvement could range from accessing research on the internet - the council's "research of the month" is the most popular element on its website - to engaging in research towards a degree, to carrying out research in their own school with links to higher education.

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