Social Justice and Evidence-Based Education

Ruth Boyaskpost by RUTH BOYASK
Plymouth University

‘We all share a moral purpose – liberating individuals from ignorance, democratising access to knowledge, making opportunity more equal, giving every child an equal chance to succeed,’ said Michael Gove at last week’s Education Reform summit. This week Nicky Morgan has succeeded Michael Gove, also retaining her post as Minister of Women and adding to it responsibility for Equalities. Evidently those of us involved in the Respecting Children and Young People project share good intentions with the former and current Secretary of State for Education.

We are yet to hear Nicky Morgan’s views on education, but in last week’s speech Michael Gove  also advocated for the use of evidence to help teachers (and education ministers) understand how best to support learning. Support for research literacy amongst the teaching profession is further common ground shared with BERA educational researchers. British educational researchers, who are highly regarded internationally, should be well placed to provide such evidence. Yet, in England little has changed in teaching since David Hargreaves’s 1996 infamous critique of educational research – teaching is still not a research-based profession, and while there are examples of very productive research/teaching collaborations, educational research is overlooked by many for ‘improving the quality of education provided in schools’.

In the first post on this blog, Geoff Whitty suggested that an explanation for the persistent inequalities found in schools can be found in the structural inequalities laid bare by Basil Bernstein and other sociologists of education. What sociological research has told us in education is that despite our shared moral purpose, we cannot expect schools on their own ‘to equalise life chances in a stratified society’ and, therefore ‘society needs to be clearer about what schools can and cannot be expected to do’. The same is true of educational research. Educational research has untapped potential for informing educational policy and practice that has equality at its heart, but in order to achieve its potential society needs to be clearer about what educational research can and cannot be expected to do.

David Hargreaves’s 1996 lecture provoked debate on evidence-based education, critique of the role of research and dissent from educational researchers; it furthered pre-existing paradigm wars between qualitative and quantitative researchers; and, it resulted in a flurry of government sponsored and academic-led initiatives designed to centrally organise educational research and provide the kind of research evidence base called for by its critics. As Martyn Hammersley predicted, centralising the organisation of educational research has not led to a happy collaboration between educational policy, practice and research. In Michael Gove’s mind, the fault lay within the educational academic community and the teachers produced through university teacher education programmes. From the position of an educational researcher, what seems notable in this portrayal of the educational establishment are misunderstandings about the nature of educational research and what it offers educational policy-making.

The misunderstandings are related to a couple of presumptions that have dominated developments in evidence-based education policy:

  1. the research of most relevance to policy either identifies statistical trends through quantitative methods or establishes casual relationships through experimental designs;
  2. qualitative, interpretive and in-depth research is a ‘softer’ form research, unable to produce generalisable conclusions and therefore only useful to policy as a supplementary method (e.g providing anecdotes to illustrate the more important ‘hard’ evidence).

These assumptions must be challenged. Causal relationships in education are very hard to establish because of the difficulty involved in “getting at” the motivations and actions of individuals who interact with one another within complex social relationships, and the effects of environment and culture upon these interactions. Furthermore, large scale, quantitative datasets are riddled with exceptions, which become smoothed out and obscured in statistical analyses, often to the detriment of society’s most vulnerable. And so, the evidence generated by large-scale, quantitative research or randomised controlled trials is only ever a partial representation of any given situation. Using these methods solely to resolve educational problems produces simplistic policy that is unlikely to move us much further than our good intentions.

Researchers, practitioners and policy-makers alike should not accept the assumption that small scale, qualitative and interpretive research lacks utility for policy. Methodological advances challenge the preconceptions that generalisations cannot be drawn from such work. Interestingly, in wider policy circles changes are afoot, and ethnography is being adopted to assist in the design of rigorous and democratic user-centred policy. While this is an encouraging development, educational policy-makers should take heed of advice from the Education SubPanel from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise who concluded that while the best government-sponsored research was excellent:

… other areas suffered in quality through being too closely tied to shifting government and government agency priorities, tight timescales, a focus on description rather than analysis, and limited theorisation. This loosened the links with social science and sometimes involved over-simplistic assumptions about teaching and learning.

Elsewhere I have argued for the importance of ‘…reconnecting social theorising with research method’, and that is also my advice for the use of interpretive methods in policy-design because ‘…when educational research is divorced from social theory and enacted as an instrumental practice it meshes more readily with a logic of economics than humanistic beliefs about social inclusion’.

The complexities of most educational problems, including the challenges of global change and exacerbating social inequalities that diminish the lives of many children and young people, demand that evidence-based education must draw upon an expanded set of conceptual and analytical tools that includes evidence from interpretive and well theorised approaches to educational research as well as traditional forms of ‘hard’ evidence. My hope is that the current administration, opposition and minority political parties keep this in mind as they construct their education policy manifestos for the 2015 Westminster election.

Ruth Boyask is convenor of the BERA Social Justice SIG and lead editor on the Respecting Children and Young People project.

5 thoughts on “Social Justice and Evidence-Based Education”

  1. I believe Nicky Morgan did not take on the Equalities bit of her role – something to do with her voting against same-sex marriage, possibly?

    1. Thanks for this comment. Seems it’s difficult to verify at the moment. Her personal website says ‘Minister for Women’, but all others I can find list her as ‘Minister for Women and Equalities’. Will keep checking.

    1. Thanks Daniel for your positive feedback. And also for linking it to the recently published 5 minute plan – yes, I agree this is an oversimplified approach to research that if implemented in its current form will lead to unsatisfying results. But I wonder if what we’re seeing here are some positive, tentative steps towards teachers engaging with research rather than something innately problematic. Having worked directly with teachers on using research to address problems of practice I know they often desire quick fixes and silver bullets to address the considerable challenges they face (not least, very little time). But once working with research they find it doesn’t quite work like that – sometimes it provides clear solutions, but mostly it answers questions with more questions and only hints at solutions (which are often trade-offs in any case) – what it does do is make teachers think much harder about the decisions they are making, and help to justify their decisions. That’s why it’s so important that the research is well theorised, because then decisions can be made in reference to theory. Personally, I think post-graduate study is the best place for teachers to be working with research.

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