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Education research and policy in an imperfect world

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 February 2016

Geoff Whitty
In 2005 it was my turn to deliver the British Educational Research Association (BERA) presidential address, typically a ‘state of the nation’ review for education research. I considered many topics, but an overwhelming issue for the education research community at the time was the ‘what works’ agenda and its implications for the kinds of research that would continue to command funding. After consultation with colleagues, that is what I chose to focus on. Our concern was that this agenda would narrow the discipline of education, on a false prospectus of determining policy. Actually, in our political system research evidence is just one factor among many in policy decisions – and often a relatively insignificant one at that.
At the time, the address received a mixed reception: many welcomed my defence of the breadth of our discipline, but some colleagues working in the ‘what works’ mould rejected what they saw as its premise that researchers and policymakers were necessarily on ‘different sides’. But that reading was not my intention. I simply wanted to highlight the
messy and often indirect relationship between research and policy and the way in which all kinds of research could usefully input to public and policy debate about our education system – and the need for this to be reflected in research funding policy.
Ten years on, my IOE colleague Emma Wisby and I have revisited the BERA address as part of my new publication, Research and Policy in Education: Evidence, ideology and impact. In policy circles the cause – certainly the rhetoric – of ‘evidence-based policy’ and the corollary of ‘research for use’ has risen in prominence over the past decade. In higher education the mantra is now that of ‘research impact’. Together, they have generated a lot of noise – as well as the ‘assessment driven hyperactivity’ that Alis Oancea has written of, not least in the form of the REF impact case studies and the related industries they have spawned. Yet, many of the issues I discussed in 2005 remain unresolved. Indeed, over-claiming about the potential for evidence-based policy seems more pronounced than ever, supported by the growth of ‘what works’ advocacy.
The contribution of the Alliance for Useful Evidence and its constituent organisations has been considerable in removing the obvious barriers to bringing research, policy and practice communities closer together – including in terms of how research agendas are set and how the findings are presented. Such advocacy, however, has not typically engaged with the limitations of the research-policy relationship, other than to decry examples of ‘policy-based evidence’. As a result we have no idea of what success would look like for them; in the meantime, this shapes a particular environment for research funding policy.
To take another very practical and symbolic example of how this debate has evolved: our education system certainly needs the Education Endowment Foundation, and I welcome the part it is playing in strengthening quantitative research in education. Yet it has sometimes given the impression that all policy and practice in education needs is findings from randomised controlled trials (RCTs). It is important for education research to be able to ask other questions as well as ‘what works’, including (as is increasingly being recognised) why something works and why it works in some contexts and not in others. But it is also entirely appropriate that policy and practice should be informed by the sort of research that asks more fundamental questions or questions prevailing assumptions, including those about what a ‘just’ education involves. It seems that the argument still needs to be made for a broad church of education research and research funding that reflects this.
Research and Policy in Education examines these debates using case studies of a range of policy areas in education – initial teacher education, closing the attainment gap, widening participation and fair access in higher education, and the growing phenomenon of international policy borrowing. They show the complex ways in which evidence and ideology have interacted in English education policymaking over the past 30 years, as well as what research can tell us about the impact of some of the most important education policies of that period.
I conclude the book with a renewed plea for maintaining a broad conception of education research, including discipline-based research on education. And in the final chapter I reassert the importance of my own discipline, the sociology of education, as an essential resource for making sense of contemporary education policy and informing the public mind on education. We need a more sophisticated debate about the relationship between research and policy and I hope this book provides a catalyst for just that.
Research and Policy in Education: Evidence, ideology and impact, by Geoff Whitty with Jake Anders, Annette Hayton, Sarah Tang and Emma Wisby, is published by UCL IOE Press.
Do join us for the book launch at Blackwell’s at the IOE Bookshop on Monday 7th March, from 5.00pm, along with the launch of Equity, Trust and the Self-improving Schools System by Richard Riddell, published by Trentham Books at UCL IOE Press. Speakers: Geoff Whitty; Richard Riddell; Becky Francis, Director Designate of IOE, and Tim Brighouse, former Commissioner for London Schools. RSVP s.sigmund@ioe.ac.uk

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2 Responses to “Education research and policy in an imperfect world”

  • 1
    educationstate wrote on 25 February 2016:

    Another question not asked enough is what it is working for. RCTs aren’t immune from this however commonsensical or obvious it may all seem.
    Geoff, quantitative research will always be seen as partisan and anti-teacher if as with so much in education today its impetus comes from outside/above. Organic support is the only way you’ll achieve real teacher engagement and the ‘what works’ movement will inevitably struggle here given its politics. An opportunity missed perhaps.

  • 2
    George wrote on 14 March 2016:

    Nice article