Too much mileage out of rusty research

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Alan Wells Former director of the Basic Skills Agency

I once wrote an article which said research showed that adults with poor literacy had usually grown up in homes that used gas for cooking. I included responses from the gas and electricity companies. The electricity board said this proved the superiority of electric cookers, while the gas board said more research was needed.

This was entirely fictitious research, of course. Most readers will have guessed that it was a joke to make a point, although I did get a letter saying that the research proved that the amount of water in the soil where someone grew up was the primary cause of poor literacy skills.

I wonder how much research there is to back up many accepted assertions about education. I feel that many claims based on supposed research cannot be substantiated, either because no real research has been done or because the quality of it makes it difficult to be definitive. It is well-received wisdom that lack of male role-models, including a shortage of male teachers in primary schools, is a major factor in boys' underachievement. Yet research published a year or two ago suggests this is largely a myth. In fact, there is little evidence that boys without a father in contact with them do much worse than those from more traditional families. When asked, boys do not identify a teacher's gender when they make judgments about how good their teaching is.

Research into the effectiveness of synthetic phonics is not that strong, yet a national strategy is to be based on it. The architects of the national literacy strategy rejected the one approach, Reading Recovery, which had considerable research support for its effectiveness - largely, I suspect, on grounds of cost.

I am not being "holier than thou" about all this: in my career, I have made some claims that were poorly supported by research. Speaking at a conference some years ago, I said that in the United States there were figures for the cost to the US economy of low levels of adult literacy.

Unfortunately, the then Secretary of State for Education was speaking at the same conference. He got excited about this and challenged me to come up with an authoritative figure for the cost to British industry. So I contacted people in theUS, only to find that their figures had been produced by extrapolating from information from Canada.

I contacted people in Canada, who said their figure was just an educated guess. Stuck with this challenge, I commissioned a survey of firms and extrapolated from this admittedly unscientific approach. This suggested the annual cost to British industry of poor adult basic skills was pound;4.8 billion. Soon after, the then Education Secretary announced that the real cost of poor adult basic skills was pound;10bn. There seemed to be no evidence to support the claim, but it has been repeated ever since. It is now accepted wisdom - like much that is unsupported by any real research.

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