The Government wants more bangs for the bucks it pays researchers and believes it knows how to do it. David Budge reports.
Government ministers have endorsed a keenly-awaited action plan that is designed to increase the impact that educational research has on policy and practice.
Ministers intend to step up educational research spending and channel a higher proportion of the money towards "centres of excellence". The strategy also envisages three or four "dedicated research centres" which will receive long-term funding to analyse current and future Government policies.
A national forum is expected to be set up to develop and co-ordinate the overall research strategy. But teachers will also be encouraged to become more involved in commissioning, steering and disseminating research.
The action plan is a direct response to the report that the Institute for Employment Studies produced for the Department for Education and Employment this summer. The more controversial study that Professor James Tooley conducted for the Office for Standards in Education is said to have "consolidated" DFEE thinking on the reform agenda.
The IES study concluded that research relating to schools rarely informed policy and practice. It emphasised, however, that funders, researchers, policy-makers, teachers and publishers had a joint responsibility to create a more effective research system.
Ministers appear to have accepted most of the IES proposals. Education junior minister Charles Clarke has, for example, backed the idea of establishing an information centre which could build up a database of recently-published research and on-going studies. Mr Clarke also echoed the IES report when he said: "The time has come to look forward and demonstrate a commitment to developing evidence-based policy and practice."
But the action plan may not satisfy either the research community or those seeking more radical reforms. Even the plan to double DFEE spending on research over the next three years - confirmed by Government officials this week - will create relatively little excitement. In research funding terms, the DFEE is "small fry". It invested just over Pounds 1.2 million in schools research in 1997-98 - a tiny proportion of the Pounds 65-Pounds 70m that is annually spent on educational research.
Michael Bassey, executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association, was pleased by Mr Clarke's public avowal of evidence-based policy. But he was disappointed by the action plan. "It reads like a hotch-potch of committee views," he said. "I don't want to damn this initiative prematurely but it seems weak. I am worried that not enough money will be put in."
Professor Bassey said that 10 to 20 dedicated research centres were needed, rather than three or four. He also criticised the suggestion that researchers would be denied funding unless they could demonstrate that they had consulted the information centre's database. This proposal aims to avoid unnecessary duplication of research, but Professor Bassey said it was "almost insulting - any good researcher carries out such checks automatically".
Jim Hillage, leader of the IES team, was slightly disappointed by the DFEE document. He acknowledged that the department had to walk a fine line - if it was too assertive it would be accused of "taking over", but if it did too little, nothing would change. Nevertheless, he said that the proposals appeared to be "a little thin".
Like Professor Bassey he is particularly concerned about the composition and role of the research forum that is to co-ordinate the reforms. Both see the choice of chairperson as a crucial decision.
As Professor Bassey said: "This appointment will affect the research community's perspective of the forum. Some senior civil servants who might take on this job are unfairly critical of research."
At present, however, it is not even certain that a new forum will be set up because its role could be assumed by the working group that advises the DFEE on research. This group has met only three or four times since Labour came to power in May 1997, and is said to have made relatively little impact. But it has been asked to consider whether it wants to expand its membership and take on the research forum's role - or disband itself to make way for the new body.
"The working party is something of a talking shop and it would be a shame if it were allowed to chunter on," said one well-informed researcher. "Asking its members to vote for their own dissolution is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. But who knows, maybe they will."
Comment, page 14
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS
* Greater commitment to evidence-based policy and practice
* Three or four dedicated research centres that will help to meet key policy information needs
* "Positive discrimination" towards centres where quality research is concentrated
* Greater emphasis on interdisciplinary research
* More opportunities for research skills training for not only academics but teachers and local authority staff involved in research
* Policy-makers and teachers to become more involved in commissioning, steering and disseminating research
* Researchers on DFEE-funded projects releasing interim findings and discussing them with focus groups to encourage earlier "user-involvement"
* LEAs to make more use of research evidence in planning
* Research findings to be made available in more accessible forms
* An information unit supported by research groups who would undertake reviews in specific areas. (This proposal is still being costed - and it is possible that the unit will not be run by the DFEE)
* The Government is also considering how to set up a national forum to develop and co-ordinate the research strategy. This role may be taken by the DFEE's existing advisory group on research.