What happened to blue-sky thinking?

9th December 2011 at 00:00
Educational researchers fear the Government is losing interest in their work. They explain why everyone with a stake in Scottish education should care

Ian Menter is a gentlemanly, measured sort of academic, not given to wild pot shots. So it is worth sitting up and taking notice when he goes on the offensive, as he did at Scottish educational researchers' annual get- together a fortnight ago.

The Scottish Government seemed to have "no interest" in funding high-level educational research, he informed delegates.

"It does worry me that there does not seem to be a sense of responsibility in Government to support educational research," he later told TESS. He has not seen any major project commissioned by the schools directorate in the past three years that could make a lasting contribution to the understanding of Scottish education.

Stark evidence of that apparent detachment emerged a day later, in a presentation by Aberdeen University emeritus senior research fellow Fran Payne, who pointed out that for the first time people could remember, there was no one from Government at the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA).

Dr Payne had been shocked, too, when she went through the list of education-related research tenders on the Scottish Government website. She counted five in the past 18 months, and not all on weighty issues - one was a piece of work on cycle training.

The sense of distance was underlined by Ross Deuchar, SERA's outgoing president. There used to be twice- yearly meetings between the SERA executive - which comprises 19 people at present - and Government officials, he told TESS. Although the president will still occasionally find himself in a room with someone from Government, opportunities for SERA members to make direct contact with civil servants have dwindled.

"The bottom line is that there have been no formal liaisons for over three years," Professor Deuchar said.

Listening to SERA members talk about the Government is like watching two friends drift apart: one is keen to preserve the friendship, but puzzled by the other's aloofness and failure to return calls.

Lorna Hamilton, a senior Edinburgh University lecturer in educational research, continued the theme. Last year, she told TESS, SERA started a bulletin to provide brief summaries of research, and encourage discussion between those involved in policy, practice and research.

"Scottish Government contacts in analytical services continue to be copied into all emails concerning this, but have so far not contributed or responded," said Dr Hamilton.

Professor Menter, who is based at Glasgow University, is working with Strathclyde University's Donald Christie on the follow-up to a report they published in 2009, which raised concerns about the state of educational research in Scotland.

They have looked at the 65 social research projects commissioned by the Scottish Government from April 2009 to March 2010, and found it difficult to identify any educational work.

They agreed that five could be seen to have an educational component, which made for a combined spend of pound;122,000, only pound;4,000 of which went to a university - a research centre in London - with the rest going to private consultancies.

It is a common complaint that research opportunities go to private consultants. Dr Payne said that while she did not doubt the integrity of such firms, they operated, by their nature, within the strict parameters of a contract drawn up by the Government; they did not explore ideas beyond that, as a curious independent researcher might.

"Very often researchers want to explore complex issues," said Stirling University visiting professor Walter Humes at SERA. "Politicians regard this often as a kind of self-indulgent luxury, particularly at a time of financial restraint."

With teachers taking to the streets in the first national strike since the 1980s, there is a danger of educational research being dismissed as an arcane - and therefore dispensable - preoccupation, far removed from the more pressing issues of pensions, job cuts and the overhaul of qualifications.

But there is far more at stake: the grand project of Scottish education in the early 21st century, Curriculum for Excellence, is on rickety foundations without a solid, ongoing base of research that helps teachers discern what works and what does not.

Several researchers have contrasted a dearth of research in schools relating to Curriculum to Excellence with the now-defunct pound;16 million Schools of Ambition programme, which from 2005 to 2010 funded 58 schools to take risks with innovative ideas and, crucially, provided university support to teacher-researchers.

The programme, observed Professor Deuchar, had been one in which "Government and academic researchers worked collaboratively to conduct action research as a means of supporting schools to implement transformative practice". Professor Menter believes Schools of Ambition might have provided an ideal model for the development of CfE - and recalls attending a meeting in 2005 with the Scottish Executive when just that idea was floated.

"I would have a concern that short-term savings by not funding research are going to put Scottish education at a longer-term risk, because the processes of development that are required in contemporary education systems will not be underpinned by research," he said.

The new president of SERA, George Head, meanwhile points to another defunct project - Future Learning and Teaching, or FLaT - as one that encouraged schools to explore ideas that were "important and significant for them", leading to a wide range of innovative local projects spanning the use of ICT in international study in Shetland, to the Feuerstein method as a tool to help Borders children improve their thinking skills.

Diminishing opportunities for high-quality research do not merely restrict innovation at a local level, it is feared, but also skew priorities at a national level.

Walter Humes, in an observation he applies to all political parties, is sceptical about their claims that they now use evidence, not ideological dogma, to come up with policies.

"This is not very convincing," he said. "They will use research which suits them and ignore findings which don't. They also sometimes put pressure on researchers to slant their reports in a particular way - though you won't find many academics willing to say this in public."

Educational policy had become as much about "spectacle" as substance, he said, and was "often driven much more by expediency, public relations and short-term advantage than research evidence".

A prime example was the SNP's flagship class-sizes policy. The evidence for it was "at best ambivalent", but it ensured attention-grabbing headlines during election campaigns, said Professor Humes.

In 2008, Scottish educational research was a success story, according to university research ratings.

It had been in a bad way in 2001, as Professor Deuchar recalled in the journal Research Intelligence earlier this year. No university department of education could boast the highest rating in the Research Assessment Exercise, the process by which the quality of British universities' research is measured. That led to "a further wave of criticisms surrounding the lack of creative and innovative methodologies, lack of quality training for research students, and lack of collaboration among institutions and disciplines".

Then came the "crucial" - Professor Deuchar's adjective - Applied Educational Research Scheme (AERS), a pound;2 million, five-year programme. Set up by the then Scottish Executive and the Scottish Funding Council, and led by Edinburgh, Stirling and Strathclyde universities, it ran from 2004- 2009.

"There is no doubt that it helped to enhance capacity and collaboration among a range of educational stakeholders, while making a substantial contribution to research training through the creation of a suite of online research training modules," recalled Professor Deuchar.

When Scottish educational research was scrutinised in the next RAE in 2008, progress was clear: Scotland was the only part of the UK where research submissions had gone up, by 59 per cent; funding levels for educational research increased by a quarter immediately after the 2008 assessment exercise.

The Government explains that AERS was about "creating a self-sustaining, vibrant infrastructure for educational research" that could continue after direct funding ended, and insisted in a statement to TESS that "the legacy of the investment is evident in the work that SERA has continued to push forward through a series of networks to improve educational research, enhance research capability and progress collaborative projects".

SERA's own view is less sanguine. Among a number of pointed observations, Professor Deuchar wrote that, post-AERS, there was in universities a "scarcity of philosophical, `blue skies' research or innovation in educational theory building".

A pivotal moment came after the SNP took power in 2007 and implemented its concordat, devolving funding decisions to local authorities. In 2009, AERS co-ordinator Stephen Baron said: "The idea of a sustained national effort in terms of educational research does not sit well with the concordat." Educational researchers were bound to feel the pinch - their type of work, to this day, is not something that crops up often in council papers.

There is a danger of reducing the argument about educational research in Scotland to a tug of war between policymakers and researchers; the reality is more complex.

Dr Head stressed that there were people within Government who seemed more sympathetic to educational research than the corporate attitude might suggest.

The Government itself, despite providing figures showing a steep decline in the number of educational projects it has commissioned in recent years (see box), insisted through a spokesman that "we are committed to seeing research in education playing a significant role in the development of the sector, and we maintain an interest in the work of SERA".

He said the lead role in liaising directly with SERA and researchers would now be taken by Education Scotland, the body formed in July from the merger of HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland.

The spokesman said: "Where SERA research is relevant the Scottish Government will liaise with individual researchers, but ES will be a better place for SERA more generally to promote its research as it will be more relevant for their work." Both Education Scotland and SERA focused on "supporting quality and improvement in learning and teaching", whereas the Government had "changed its focus to be more about the outcomes of the system". The Government was "involved in a wide range of research" and working with education directors' body ADES, Scotland's Colleges, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and others, to "monitor progress on delivering Curriculum for Excellence and its early impact".

Although major new commissions are scarce, long-running studies such as Behaviour in Scottish Schools and Growing Up in Scotland continue, as does work for the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment - although Professor Menter is far from alone in believing the latter has "dubious educational value".

The General Teaching Council for Scotland, meanwhile, was muted in its comments on the educational research issue: funding for research was "increasingly tight" but the Government had "a good track record". A spokesman stressed that the GTCS was involved in research, from gathering employment statistics for new teachers - the latest round published earlier this week - to the funding it offers through its own Teacher Researcher Programme, and work on leadership development.

From an external perspective, the Scottish picture can look more positive. Helen Colley, a professor of lifelong learning at Manchester Metropolitan University, was a keynote speaker at SERA this year and told TESS how refreshing the conference had been, noting, for example, that researchers from different universities appeared to work together, not in direct competition to each other as often happened in England.

SERA "certainly stood out from the sort of conformative research that tends to dominate in larger British and European research conferences", such as the British Educational Research Association's annual conference, and she had "always been impressed with the constructive relationship between policy and research in Scotland".

There was a caveat: Scottish colleagues "seemed to be feeling a rather sharp wind of change" in their relationship with Government, although she still detected "healthy engagement with local authorities".

Stirling University's Mark Priestley believes that concerns should not centre purely on a lack of funding for empirical, classroom-based work, but also on the dearth of curriculum theory.

Dr Priestley, one of the few Scottish researchers who delves into curriculum studies, said: "In my view, many of the current implementation problems are primarily caused by a lack of the latter - or at least a lack of clarity and coherence in the curriculum documentation as a whole - rather than by a lack of research."

He blames prescriptive policy that preceded Curriculum for Excellence, together with a declining need for teachers and others to understand processes involved with school-based curriculum development, for there being fewer academics grounded in this type of work, "at a time when it is once more needed".

Aline-Wendy Dunlop, a Strathclyde University emeritus professor, is wary that discussion about insufficient Government funding could imply the existence of a lost golden age.

"I don't think we were ever funded by the Scottish Government in educational research - I think we were supported at times," she said during a SERA debate. In any case, she added, researchers should be careful what they wish for: funding from the state necessarily entailed a measure of control by the state.

Similarly, Walter Humes - praised by colleagues at SERA for a career largely independent of Government influence - made "a plea for researchers who are prepared to go against the grain", and explore under-explored areas such as the economics of education.

"Too much educational policy and research is narrowly pragmatic and uninformed by history or theory," he said.

Ross Deuchar believes Scottish researchers need to get better at presenting their work in different ways, "reaching out to policymakers, practitioners and the general public". Professor Robin Alexander, the director of a long-running Cambridge University review of primary school education, concurred: the SERA keynote speaker told his hosts they should become "much more aggressive" about getting their work into the media.

Educational research is being squeezed not just by a lack of Government funding. The sharp reduction of student-teacher intakes into universities in 2009 had a knock-on effect on education academics, cut by up to 30 per cent in some universities. Education deans and their equivalents, meanwhile, no longer have as much control over budgets, given the tendency in recent years for education faculties to become drawn into the wider spheres of humanities and social science. There has been a trend, too, for educational research centres such as the Scottish Council for Research in Education to become subsumed into wider endeavours.

But it is the scarcity of research funding and opportunities, and the Government's perceived aloofness, that are focusing the minds of educational researchers. Frustration started to bubble over at the SERA conference. It is an event usually marked by earnest erudition and cerebral keynote speeches, but at times this year it started to sound more like a trade union rally.

The irony is that, far from being about the self-preservation of an intellectual elite, the idea of the teacher as researcher is becoming common currency. The Donaldson review this year called for every teacher to "engage directly with well-researched innovation".

Professor Deuchar has highlighted the "urgent need" for the Government to "reignite its previously strong partnership with bodies such as SERA as a means. to support the development of small-scale qualitative and practitioner-led research, as well as larger-scale, quantitative initiatives".

This should be a pioneering time, with academics the midwives as innovative projects spring up in schools throughout the country. Perhaps that is why the diminution of educational research is so deeply felt.

It adds up: How cash for research initiatives was allocated

TESS asked the Scottish Government to give the annual budget for research in schools or education for each of the past four years. The following information was provided, showing figures for money assigned to Education Analytical Services. It also takes into account the ScotXed (Scottish Exchange of Educational Data) unit, and an allocation for Futureskills Scotland (Scottish Enterprise).

Project stats

Number of education research projects commissioned by the Scottish Government

2011-12 (to date) - 6

2010-11 - 10

2009-10 - 16

2008-09 - 28

Source: Scottish Government

A morning at SERA

Titles of all half-hour presentations in the first morning of the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association, 24 November:

- Europe, economy, education: implications for policy in austere times

- Effective professional learning and development for teachers

- Testing creative writing in Pakistan: tensions and potential in classroom practice

- Voices of special teachers

- Home-school partnership in the context of educational transitions

- Recognising or developing an activist profession in sustainable development education

- "They don't just boss you about like teachers, they just act like they are equals." The impact of schoolsyouthwork partnerships on disengaged young people

- Teachers' cognition and classroom teaching practice: an investigation of teaching English writing at the university level in Libya

- Raising awareness of hidden disabilities (dyslexia and autism spectrum disorder): the impact of awareness-raising workshops and assemblies on primary school children

- Early childhood professionals, parents and pedagogy

- Broadcasting quality: BBC News School Report

- Early intervention and relationships

- Whither educational research?

Original headline: Mind the gap: the growing gulf between policy and research

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today