BERA President’s Roundtables 2015-17: Methodological challenges in education(al) research

BERA is starting a series of presidential round table seminars that will draw on processes of agenda- setting, horizon-scanning, evidence review and user engagement to explore key methodological challenges facing the education research community in areas of substantive enquiry. 

Each event will focus on a different methodological challenge, exploring current dilemmas that arise in the method’s context of use and setting out an agenda for future enquiry.  The seminars are designed to promote engagement and dialogue across different communities of practice in education. To facilitate free-flowing discussion, all the events will be held under Chatham house rules. The briefing papers prepared for the event and the summary points that emerge from the discussion will be published on the BERA website.

Presidential Round Table Seminar 1

What are assessment data really good for?  Reliability, validity and the politics of accountability and curriculum change in education
26th November 2015
University of Bristol

The belief that the collection and monitoring of assessment data are the key to good education system management is widespread. But over time some of the confidence placed in the forms of assessment data collected and how they can legitimately be interpreted has weakened. It does not automatically follow that the more data an education system collects, the better its results. Moreover, overconfidence in the story the data tell can lead to the data’s misinterpretation in public discourse, leading to a series of unintended consequences for schools, for teachers and their pupils. This is well recognised within the psychometric tradition, where the reliability and validity of any assessment data are rightly a matter of keen debate. This seminar will explore some of the methodological issues surrounding the use of assessment data in schools, what the data’s warrants really are and how the data might best be used to further equality of outcomes within what remains in many respects a socially segregated education system.

Key methodological issues to be considered include:

  • the weight that can be justifiably placed on assessment data in different contexts of use
  • how far issues in interpretation can be settled by purely technical means
  • the strengths and weakness of current approaches to assessment in delivering more equal outcomes
  • whether the education system can and should manage with less data
  • The  interaction between forms of assessment and curriculum teaching and planning
  • whether the validity and reliability of national assessment instruments can produce meaningful predicted grades for individual childre

The speakers who will be invited to open up some of these issues for debate include: Rebecca Allen, Education Datalab; Jannette Elwood, Queen’s University, Belfast and Paul Newton, Ofqual.
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Presidential Round Table Seminar 2

Methodologies for researching with the most disadvantaged in situations of conflict
12th May 2016
Queen’s University Belfast

Central to research on conflict are issues of social justice and social exclusion. While experiences of inequality and discrimination may contribute to hostilities, disadvantaged groups are also likely to experience some of the most negative effects of conflict – economically, socially and educationally. Despite this, research in situations of conflict often fails to capture (or to capture effectively) the perspectives of the most disadvantaged. In some cases, this reflects the difficulties of gaining access to educational settings and participants in contexts characterised by suspicion, fear and displacement; in other cases, a focus on the role of political elites and international organisations can take precedence, marginalising other voices. Researchers who are able to overcome these challenges often find themselves faced with others: the contested nature of ‘disadvantage’ among different parties; the task of managing one’s identity as ‘insider’/’outsider’; and the frequent tension between the constructive and destructive roles of education in a divided society. Moreover, they may be faced with particular questions about the relevance, value and ethics of research in settings experiencing ongoing violent conflict.

The aim of this seminar is to explore the range of methodological concerns and issues encountered by researchers in this area, share experiences and perspectives from the field, and identify examples of effective practice in researching within the most disadvantaged in situations of conflict. The discussion will address topics such as:

  • effective approaches to involving disadvantaged and ‘hidden’ groups in research on education and conflict;
  • the concept of ‘disadvantage’ in situations of conflict and division;
  • the relationship between conflict and disadvantage in children and young people’s lives;
  • the ethical dimension of research with those most affected by conflict;
  • insider/outsider perspectives and issues of researcher reflexivity;
  • the purpose and impact of educational research with the most disadvantage in situations of conflict.

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Presidential Round Table Seminar 3

Exploring theories of change in education: determining when, how and why x leads to y?
24th November 2016
Cardiff University

Chair/convenor: Richard Thurston, Deputy Chief Research Officer, Welsh Government

Theory-based approaches to evaluation have become popular in the UK in recent years both in academic work and policy and practice settings.  Various versions exist – theories of change, logic models, realist evaluation, results-based accountability, benefits realisation. All involve some form of evaluative thinking. But their conduct and utilisation vary as do their antecedents – as part of planning processes for programmes, abstracted diagrams, practical exercises with stakeholders, discourse analysis, diagnostic assessments, complex expositions of programme theory and so on. Their use crosses-over between academic studies, government commissioned evaluations, non-governmental work, and across disciplines and policy areas.

This seminar will unpick their wider use, identify points of connection and digression between the approaches and provide a forum for considering how their application can be developed in research practice and policy utilisation.

The speakers who will be invited to open up some of these issues for debate include: Professor Gemma Moss (BERA President, Bristol University), Professor Nick Tilley (UCL) and Professor Chris Taylor (Welsh Institute of Social & Economic Research).

This will be followed by a practical workshop led by Dr Jamie Smith (Head of Public Services Research, Welsh Government) and Joanne Starkey (Head of Schools Research, Welsh Government). The workshop will invite participants to develop a theory of change in relation to a topical education reform of their choice!

Participants are asked to provide ideas of a topical education reform to be considered at the seminar in advance. Please email ideas to

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Presidential Round Table Seminar 4

PISA and international education assessments
31st January 2017

Large-scale international education studies, such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), have grown in prominence and importance over the last decade. Yet there has been much debate, and controversy, about the robustness of such studies, and how best the data that they generate can be used. The aim of this seminar is to discuss the methodological foundations of studies such as PISA, and what analyses of these data and cannot reveal. It will tackle issues such as the design of the PISA test, strengths, limitations and uncertainties with the PISA scaling model, and what this then means for users (and consumers) of these important data. Presentations will be given by experts from the UK and Germany, including individuals who have led the analysis of PISA 2015 national reports.


  • Dr. John Jerrim. Reader in Educational and Social Statistics at UCL Institute of Education. Led the writing of the PISA 2015 national reports for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Professor John Micklewright. Professor of Economics and Social Statistics at the UCL Institute of Education.
  • Dr. Christine Salzer. TUM School of Education, Germany. Led the writing of the PISA 2015 national reports for Germany.

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Presidential Round Table Seminar 5

Learning for Change: researching pedagogies
11th July 2017
newcastle university

What methods are being used to research pedagogy? What methodological challenges do they raise? This final BERA round table returns to what education is centrally about, pedagogy, looking at three areas:

    1) Current and innovative methodologies for researching the development of teachers in schools;
    2) How researching the teaching of research methods in HE can help create a re-invigorated pedagogic culture; and
    3) Pedagogies of knowledge exchange.  What happens when university researchers engage with individuals working in educational contexts in order to learn from each other with the aim of creating new knowledge?

Pedagogy is ‘any conscious activity by one person designed to enhance learning in another’ (Mortimore 1999). It is the conditions, interactions and means through which knowledge is generated. Also the forms, processes, sites or education and learning both within and outside formal schooling. It is transforming, making and remaking. It is about being and becoming human together. But what methods are there for researching pedagogies in different contexts? And how does this research help us to better understand pedagogy? This roundtable returns to the bedrock of our profession by looking at innovative ways of researching pedagogy.


  • Professor Melanie Nind, University of Southampton
  • Professor Trevor Gale, University of Glasgow
  • Professor Liz Todd, Newcastle University
  • Ms Karen Laing, Newcastle University

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