Educational research is about more than ‘what works’ by Geoff Whitty

My new book, Research and Policy in Education: Evidence, ideology and impact (UCL IOE Press, 2016), reflects on my struggles to make sense of the relationship between research and policy in education in the fifteen years since I took up my post as Director of the Institute of Education in September 2000.

The opening chapter is a critique of the limitations of the fashionable rhetoric of ‘evidence-based policy’ and of the ‘what works’ and ‘impact’ agendas of recent governments. The next chapter explores the reality of education policy making in the context of 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 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 ‘what works’ too often marginalises questions about what works where and for whom, and can mask 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.

But even in areas of considerable political consensus, like closing the social class achievement gap and widening participation in higher education in England, which are discussed in two further chapters, the evidence does not simply speak for itself. Nor does it seem conducive to ‘quick fix’ solutions. We need to understand why ‘magic bullet’ policies, while seductive, so often fail to fulfil their initial promise.

So, while working on the book, I found myself increasingly drawn back to my roots as a sociologist. Even though such work is not necessarily undertaken with a view to policy impact, I found sociological theories of social and cultural reproduction, for example, really helpful in understanding why some of the policies I was discussing didn’t have the impact that their advocates predicted. This reinforced my view that we need to be clearer about what schools and universities can and cannot do – or at least cannot do on their own.

This also means that education policy should not be studied in isolation, and I cite with approval the words of Sir Fred Clarke, one of my most eminent predecessors as Director of the Institute, who said seventy years ago that ‘educational theory and educational policy that take no account of [sociological insights] will be not only blind but positively harmful’. Thirty years later, in 1974, John Nisbet, the first President of the British Educational Research Association, somewhat prematurely claimed that we had moved away from a naive ‘problem-solving’ model of educational research. He advocated nurturing a variety of approaches and perspectives in educational research; his plea for a broader based conception of educational research is even more relevant today when it is sometimes implied that randomised control trials are the only form of research worth doing.

I conclude the book by suggesting that, while there is certainly a place for instrumental research, not all educational research can be about providing solutions to problems in policy and practice in any simple sense. It will often entail elucidating and examining the nature of problems for a wider public constituency and even putting evidence of ‘what doesn’t work’ – and why – into the public domain to provide a form of ‘inoculation’ against ‘policy epidemics’ like GERM.

We need to be challenging simplistic narratives, helping to change the terms of the debate, increasing informed resistance to superficial but seemingly attractive policies – and most of all generating demand for policies that will better serve the needs of all our children.

Geoff Whitty was Director of the Institute of Education, University of London, from 2000 until 2010. He is now Director Emeritus of the UCL Institute of Education, as well as holding a Research Professorship at Bath Spa University and a Global Innovation Chair at the University of Newcastle, Australia.