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Using research to change educational systems: possibilities and barriers

Mel Ainscow Chris Chapman

The UK education systems are involved in massive reform programmes. These developments open up new opportunities for researchers to contribute to and learn from the changes that are going on. Yet, despite their commitments to get involved, many researchers often find themselves marginalised or excluded when major policy decision taken.

In recent years, we have been employed as advisors in three related national improvement initiatives: City Challenge in England (2008-11), Schools Challenge Cymru in Wales (2014-17), and the Scottish Attainment Challenge (2015-17). These experiences have thrown light on the possibilities and barriers involved.

Whilst each of the initiatives was developed in their own contexts, they shared a number of common features: each country is committed to achieve both excellence and equity; the initiatives were instigated by national government; and they each emphasised school-led change, with additional resources made available to support improvement efforts. Our involvement provided privileged access to information regarding the way decisions are made within an education system, from the levels of government ministers and senior civil servants, through to that of teachers in the classroom.

In each of the projects, we have had some success in using our knowledge of research to inform decision making. This confirmed for us the advice of Jane Tinkler who argues that when ‘those in power seek academics out, they usually want the result of experience and expertise built up over an academic’s career, rather than just the findings from a particular piece of research.’ [1] This means that research informed interventions involve on-the-hoof decisions as to when to make contributions and how far these should challenge existing assumptions.

In such contexts, the researcher becomes aware of political processes that may welcome and accelerate action, or resist and stifle suggestions. Some of this relates to the way educational policy is formulated. Commenting on this, David Laws, a former Schools’ Minister at Westminster, said: ‘A lot of decision-making is not based on evidence but on hunch. I had little coming to me from civil servants that presented the latest academic evidence. Too often, they just serve up practical advice about how the minister can do what he or she wants. But politicians are prone to make decisions based on ideology and personal experience. [2] 

This problem is then exaggerated by the ways in which some of us in the research community position ourselves and present the findings of our work. Specifically, many of us continue to be surprised or even dismayed that our work is not immediately adopted into policy or practice. 

Our experience suggests that, in order to use ideas from research to inform policy development and ultimately guide educational improvement, we have to be smarter at understanding and overcoming barriers related to:

  • Social factors: the extent to which relationships encourage the sharing of expertise though mutual support and challenge
  • Cultural factors: local traditions and the expectations of those involved as to what is possible
  • Political factors: the impact of power relationships on policy decisions

Our involvement in the three projects also point to ways in which these barriers can be overcome in order that research can be helpful in promoting change.  By and large, these responses are not based on a technical-rationale process through which research-informed knowledge is presented to policy makers and practitioners with the expectation that this will then be used to guide decision-making and action.  Rather, they involve a rather messy social learning process, within which researcher expertise and perspectives are brought together with the knowledge of policy makers and practitioners.

This means that researchers must display sensitivity, build relationships and develop trust in order to span the boundaries between the academic and policymaking worlds. In order to do this, researchers must develop the ability to make purposeful connections with others who share their vision, and work hard to persuade those who do not, that they should. Consequently, they have to develop new skills in creating collaborative partnerships that cross borders between actors who have different professional experiences and ways of seeing the world. They also need to mobilise personal support in dealing with the pressures this involves. Where this works, it can lead to the generation of new, context-specific knowledge that can support change processes for the better. At the same time, there is always a nagging worry that we are dancing with the devil. 

[1] 27th March 2012The quality poor’

[2] The Guardian, 1st August 2017