Earlier this month, the IoE hosted a launch event for my new book, Research and Policy in Education: Evidence, ideology and impact, written with Jake Anders, Annette Hayton, Sarah Tang and Emma Wisby, and published by UCL IOE Press. Tim Brighouse, former Commissioner for London Schools, and Becky Francis, Director Designate of the UCL Institute of Education, spoke at the event.
The book reflects my own struggles to make sense of the relationship between research and policy in education over the past fifteen years or so. The opening chapter is a critique of the limitations of the rhetoric of evidence based policy and the ‘what works’ agenda, particularly in the hands of recent governments. The next chapter illustrates this in relation to the reform of teacher training in England under the Coalition government, where policy seems to have been driven largely by New Right ideology rather than research evidence on the effectiveness of provision. Another chapter shows how the use of evidence in international policy borrowing falls far short of the protocols expected in academic research. It suggests that the rhetoric of ‘what works’ masks a predilection for reforms that are ideologically consistent with a wider political agenda associated with what Pasi Sahlberg has termed GERM – the Global Educational Reform Movement.
education policy should not be studied in isolation and that we need to be clearer about what schools and universities can and cannot do – or at least cannot do on their own
But even in areas of considerable political consensus, like closing the social class achievement gap and widening participation in higher education, which are discussed in two further chapters, the evidence does not simply speak for itself. Nor does it seem conducive to quick fix solutions. So, while working on the book, I found myself increasingly drawn back to my roots in the sociology of education, which some people thought I had abandoned when I stood down from the Karl Mannheim chair to take up the Directorship of the Institute of Education. Even though such work is not necessarily undertaken with a view to policy impact, I found the theories of social and cultural reproduction of Bernstein and Bourdieu, for example, really helpful in understanding why some of these policies didn’t work. This also reinforced my view that education policy should not be studied in isolation and that we need to be clearer about what schools and universities can and cannot do – or at least cannot do on their own. Had I finished the book even a month later, I would have had even stronger evidence to support this case, as figures that came out last December showed the attainment gap and fair access both going in the wrong direction despite all the policy emphasis and investment that had been made in them over the years.
I end the book with a plea for more discipline-based research on education, and specifically the sociology of education, to remain part of a broad-based conception of the field of education research. In doing so, I align myself with Sir Fred Clarke, one of my most eminent predecessors as Director of the Institute, who said that ‘educational theory and educational policy that take no account of [sociological insights] will be not only blind but positively harmful’. I also argue that a lot of education research will not be about providing solutions to problems in any simple sense. It will entail elucidating and examining the nature of problems for a wider public constituency as much as for politicians or think tanks. This doesn’t mean eschewing the fashionable impact and public engagement agendas, but it does mean reframing them away from the narrow emphasis on policy influence that dominated the impact case studies at the last REF.
We should be challenging simplistic narratives and helping to change the terms of the debate and thereby increasing informed resistance to superficial but seemingly attractive policies
Part of our impact could be in putting evidence of ‘what doesn’t work’ – and why – into the public domain, thereby providing a form of ‘inoculation’ against ‘policy epidemics’ like GERM. We should be challenging simplistic narratives and helping to change the terms of the debate and thereby increasing informed resistance to superficial but seemingly attractive policies. That takes us right back to how our role was seen by A. H. Halsey, one of the most prominent English sociologists of education of the twentieth century, who argued that the task of the sociologist is to inform debate and whose own work influenced the debate on academic selection. Sociologists of education have been less involved in public policy debates recently, but in my view their role in making sense of ‘evidence’ and strengthening the public mind on education remains crucial.