Shake-up on the way as research is scrutinised

20th February 1998 at 00:00
David Budge reports that the Government is concerned to get the best value from a Pounds 65 million investment.

A newly-launched Government review is likely to trigger a fundamental shake-up of the Pounds 65 million-a-year educational research "industry".

Ministers suspect, as do many teachers and educationists, that the country could obtain a much better return on money spent on research.

The Department for Education and Employment has therefore asked the Institute for Employment Studies at the University of Sussex to report on "the direction, organisation, funding, quality and impact of educational research".

It is the third such review in recent months, but it will be the most wide-ranging and is expected to produce some radical reform proposals. The other reviews have been commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education and the Higher Education Funding Council.

Professor Michael Barber, head of the standards and effectiveness unit at the DFEE, said: "It is extremely unlikely that the status quo will survive after this review. But anyone who recognises the potential of education research should look forward to this study. What David Blunkett wants are some recommendations on how to take education research forward in a way that improves classroom practice and policy development."

Educational research has been under consistent attack since the l970s when it became obvious that no amount of investigation could provide solutions to the most intractable educational and social problems. Researchers have often been criticised for either conducting abstruse academic studies that have no relevance to teachers or for failing to communicate those findings that could improve classroom practice.

But the criticism has been particularly intense in the past two years. Professor David Hargreaves of Cambridge University, who has landed some of the heaviest blows on the research community, has claimed that much educational research is second-rate and "clutters up academic journals that virtually nobody reads". He has called for a new forum of teachers, academics, parents and governors to decide what research should be done.

Professor Hargreaves's arguments have been endorsed by the Teacher Training Agency, which wants to see more teachers becoming involved in research, and believes that researchers must work more closely with local authorities and schools in future.

His views also appear to have influenced the Higher Education Funding Council, the biggest single funder of educational research. It has earmarked a larger proportion of its 1997-98 research budget - a further Pounds 3m - for "specific, pedagogic" research and has commissioned a soon-to-be-published "stocktaking" report from the National Foundation for Educational Research. The DFEE has revealed that Professor Hargreaves was also a member of the panel that chose the Institute for Employment Studies to carry out the latest review, which is due to be published in the summer. Nevertheless, researchers do not appear to be alarmed by this new investigation.

The present Government has been more willing than its predecessors to base policy decisions on research, and Professor Barber has given assurances that the Government will not attempt to control how funding is allocated.

Professor Michael Bassey, executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association, said: "I think this review is welcome. The organisation that is conducting this study sounds reputable. It is probably quite useful that it isn't an education department doing it."

BERA is, however, less sanguine about the OFSTED review. It is being carried out by Dr James Tooley, of Manchester University, who is seen as a right-winger, and has been authorised by Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, who has claimed that much of the work by Britain's 3,000 education researchers is "woolly and simplistic".

The Liberal Democrats also have reservations about the Tooley review, which is expected to be completed within the next few weeks. Last month, the party's education spokesman, Don Foster, said that although in principle any investigation into the value of educational research was to be welcomed he could not understand why OFSTED was involved in such an exercise. "It is not OFSTED's job to evaluate value for money in academic research - that is done by the Higher Education Funding Council," he said.

Dr Tooley's report will be based on a review of published papers but the DFEE study will be more ambitious. The Institute for Employment Studies team has been asked to canvass teachers, local authority representatives, research funders and researchers themselves. Those wishing to contribute should contact Jim Hillage, senior research fellow, Institute for Employment Studies, Mantell Building, University of Sussex, Brighton BNl 9RF (tel. 01273-686751 fax 01273 690430).

research focus, page 21

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