Making use of Research in Policy Making.

We asked Emeritus Professor John MacBeath and Professor Maurice Galton of Cambridge University to give some thoughts on the recent history of the fate of education research commissioned by the English Government particularly in relation to reforms of pedagogy and the curriculum. Both John and Maurice are global leaders in research on school self-evaluation and leadership and primary education.

We believe that this area of exploration is vital for the teaching profession globally since governments are increasingly claiming that their education reforms are based on research evidence drawn both from other countries and from international studies. We would like this to be the first in a series. We want to hear from you about the use of evidence in education policy making and whether it is being used partially, as simply a weapon to impose politically motivated reforms, or whether it used as the basis for genuinely improving learning by governments and teachers alike. 

In education history repeats itself

Evidenced based practice is a term politicians are fond of using when it comes to justifying their educational policies. In the UK during 1980s under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a leading proponent of the school effectiveness movement, David Reynolds was dispatched to Taiwan to discover why that country did so well in the international assessment rankings. He concluded it was down to whole class teaching despite the fact that there were many other Asian countries where whole class teaching dominated although at the bottom of international league tables. Primary teachers throughout England and Wales were thus mandated to spend 60 per cent of a lesson using this form of instruction. Much of this policy was continued to be implemented, albeit in modified forms by the following Labour Government and its Standards Unit Head, Michael Barber. Now, with the return of the Conservatives in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, another report was commissioned to determine the lessons to be learned from leading Asian countries, written by Tim Oates (Tim Oates, Could do better: Using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England, November 2010,Cambridge: Cambridge Assessment) of Cambridge Assessment, the University’s international examining group. This time it was the way in which the curriculum, as delivered through text books, and its alignment with the assessment procedures that was said to be the key to success.

Often expert advice is rejected by English Ministers. One example is the creation of the first National Curriculum for England. The then Conservative Government’s expert committee, of which this article’s author Maurice Galton was a member, recommended integrating subjects within a core of mathematics, English and science as a way of accommodating a balanced curriculum which allowed time for creative subjects such as the arts, drama and music. This advice was rejected, the committee summarily dismissed and their draft report completely rewritten by a government agency. However, within three years of the introduction of the new National Curriculum, the Government had to appoint a fixer, Ron Dearing, to reduce the resulting curriculum overload. Another example was when a Conservative Minister invited a globally renowned academic Robin Alexander to join what later became known as the ‘three wise men’ to make recommendations on primary teaching, having reviewed the existing research. Subsequently, Alexander described how much of what he wrote in draft was amended by the then Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, to reflect the Government’s vendetta against what they saw as child centred practices, which, for example, included the use of cooperative group work.

The incoming 1997 Labour Government turned out to be equally selective in its use of evidence is substantiated by this article’s other author John MacBeath.  His membership of the Government’s Task Force on Standards was salutary. Created shortly after the 1997 coming to power of New Labour as a forum for open policy discourse, it became quickly apparent that the boundaries of viewpoints deemed admissible had been already well established.  Heresies would, at best, be given a polite and cursory hearing. Even as a sounding board for embryonic policies it proved to offer false promise as even its Chair, Education Minister David Blunkett found himself bypassed by priorities shaped and agreed around the kitchen table of the Prime Minister’s office. Only through gritted teeth did Blunkett endorse the continued tenure of HMCI Woodhead.   

The real lessons of international comparisons

In reality, our experience suggests that the lessons to be learned from the countries in and around the Pacific Rim and elsewhere are very different from those absorbed by the UK Government which seems to select only the evidence which supports their ideological leanings.

In Singapore, for example, reforms such as ‘Teach Less: Learn More’ have been based on the growing understanding, backed by research, that, cooperation, risk taking, and strategic thinking  are vital elements in the education of the young and that in an ‘information based’ society, ‘knowing how’ to access  information is more important than ‘knowing what’. Singapore has invested millions of dollars on seeking to implement these changes in pedagogy which involve much greater student interaction.

In Hong Kong, the spearhead reform, Learning to Learn, takes on a similar perspective for 21stcentury education. At primary level, Hong Kong has reduced the size of classes from around 38 to between 20 and 25 with a determined attempt to achieve a similar shift in pedagogy as that in Singapore. Following the recommendations of researchers, six pedagogic principles, based on a social constructivist approach are now embedded in most curriculum initiatives. At upper secondary school and University the old 3-4-3 system inherited from the British has been replaced by 3-3-4 such that ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Advanced’ level examinations, taken at 16 and 18 years of age respectively, have been abolished and a single leaving diploma taken at 17 years of age instituted. The 4 year University course now has a flexible foundation year. Those who initially miss out on University entrance can follow a diploma while first year students are following the foundation year and, if they gain the award, can enter the degree programme in year two of the course.

In Hong Kong a salient feature of research, including Government funded research, is the receptivity to expert findings and a willingness to adopt recommendations of researchers. Derisive comments about ‘academics’ and university research, such as prevailed during and beyond the Thatcher years in the UK, is a foreign notion in both senses of the word.

In some developing countries also, expert advice seems to count for more than in the UK. For example the Ghanaian Ministry has adopted the principles of Leadership for Learning, which were researched by a Cambridge team over three and half years in that country.

While ‘cherry picking’ of school effectiveness research findings has been put to the service of preconceived government initiatives, countries less open to a researcher-policy dialogue,  including so-called ‘developing’ countries,  have often taken a less doctrinaire stance to  the research community. And in some of the high achieving countries such as Finland, Singapore and New Zealand there is a more nuanced approach to school ‘effects’ and to research findings in general. Interestingly, in New Zealand the Ministry of Education’s own team, led by Professor Alton Lee not only reads all the papers studied thoroughly, unlike some analyses which are based only on the abstracts, but then send the conclusions out for further testing in schools, so that the theory, and the empirical findings are triangulated against classroom practice - an approach very different from that put to the service of policy in countries such as the UK.

In contrast in England, after a year and half of work on curriculum reform, much of its expert group’s recommendations were ignored by the Government.  So having appointed the country’s leading experts on curriculum and assessment, the Minister obviously decided that he knew better having been to school himself. His research findings, in effect, rested on a stratified sample of one.  Making use of research in policy making?  Well, perhaps not.

Experts but not so expert after all?

Bringing the saga up to date, Cambridge University researchers with long experience of working on the curriculum and assessment, Andrew Pollard and Mary James, were appointed by the current Secretary for Education, Michael Gove to lead an expert panel, advising on further reform of the school curriculum following the Oates’ report. They found their recommendations on a broad and balanced curriculum were being ignored so that the arts were in danger of total exclusion with draft programmes of study in other subjects ignored and replaced by ones devised by the Government. In their joint letter of resignation Pollard and James justify their decision because of their concern

‘with the direction which the [Education] Department now appears to be taking. Some of these directions fly in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally and, in our judgement, cannot be justified educationally’

Country Profiles