Strategy research goes to Canada

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Academics are seething after losing a pound;100,000 contract, David Budge reports

THE Government has awarded a pound;100,000-a-year contract to evaluate the national literacy and numeracy strategies to Canadian academics, after deciding that British researchers may lack objectivity.

Some of the country's top education researchers are said to be "affronted" that they were not even allowed to submit tenders for the four-year project, seen as one of the most important studies to be commissioned in recent years.

The team that won the contract in competition with five other overseas institutions is led by Professor Michael Fullan, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is the originator of the "pressure and support" approach to educational change that has helped to shape the British Government's strategy.

Professor Fullan is one of the world's foremost authorities on school improvement, but neither he nor his four colleagues are recognised as experts in either literacy or numeracy.

Richard Bartholomew, chief research officer at the Department for Education and Employment, said that the decision to recruit overseas academics should not be seen as a criticism of British researchers' skills and professionalism. "Our paramount concern was to ensure that, in this particular case, the evaluation would not only be independent but seen to be by all concerned," he said.

But the explanation has not satisfied the British Educational Research Association. Professor Michael Bassey, the association's executive secretary, said: "It is an affront to British researchers to say that they can't offer the detachment that this evaluation needs. As far as I am aware there is no precedent for this."

Professor Peter Mortimore, director of the Institute of Education, London University, is also concerned about the way the contract was awarded. In a letter to Richard Bartholomew he asked about the cost of transatlantic flights.

Mr Bartholomew did not answer that question, but he did explain why the DFEE decided to bypass UK researchers. He said that Michael Barber, head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, believed that "no one caught up in the process of reform here could bring the perspective or detachment to the evaluation that experts from abroad could bring ... Since the strategies are among the most ambitious attempts to 'scale up' reform anywhere in the world, it was also important to have a team which could bring an informed global perspective to the evaluation."

However, another critic of the Government's decision, Professor Kate Myers of Keele University, said: "This is a silly position to adopt. There is no reason why Michael Fullan should be more objective than others. He is brilliant, though, and if anyone can adapt to a new context then he can."

The evaluation will examine the impact of the numeracy and literacy strategies on pupils' learning, the extent to which they are being implemented, and the cost-effectiveness of the reforms.

"The Canadians will probably be coming over on a lot of short visits but the bill for the air fares will be pretty minuscule when set against the overall cost of the project," a DFEE official said this week. "What's much more important is that this is going to be a genuinely formative study. The interim findings should affect the way the strategies are deployed."

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