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Defending educational research in changing times

Kevin Dunseath
University of Sheffield, England
Recently educational research in Britain has come under fierce public attack by politicians, policymakers and even by some members of the research community itself. One of the main criticisms has been that it lacks 'usefulness'. This is generally taken to mean that educational research has insufficient relevance to and impact on classroom practice. Policy changes are now being introduced in Britain with the aim of enhancing the perceived usefulness of educational research.

The aim of this paper is to examine through documentary sources the background to the recent spate of criticism and then to explore the notions of usefulness, relevance and impact in the context of educational research. Comparisons are made with criticisms that have been made of educational research elsewhere, including in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. An historical review of criticisms of educational research in Britain is also presented.

The paper argues that, although the concepts of usefulness, relevance and impact have a common-sense appeal which has been ably exploited by some critics, the concepts are not straightforward and in fact may be used not only to promote particular political agendas but also to mask a dangerous anti-intellectualism. The paper makes the appeal that, despite rapid and significant changes in society and in the teaching and learning environment, traditional academic and research values should be firmly protected rather than denigrated or dismissed.


Educational research in Britain has recently been challenged in a manner and on a scale that is unprecedented. As society has demanded increasing flexibility in educational provision, educational research has been charged with failing to offer adequate solutions to the questions asked of it. In 1995, Alan Smithers, Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool, famously argued that the only criterion for judging the value of educational research was the extent of its 'usefulness' (Smithers 1995). The following year, David Hargreaves, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, called for an end to the 'frankly second-rate educational research which does not make a serious contribution to fundamental theory or knowledge; which is irrelevant to practice; which is uncoordinated with any preceding or follow-up research; and which clutters up academic journals that virtually nobody reads' (Hargreaves 1996:7). Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Schools, then labelled much published educational research as 'at best no more than an irrelevance and distraction' (Woodhead 1998).

Politicians, smelling blood, closed in. David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, urged the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) to clamp down on educational research not closely related to improving classroom practice (Halpin 1998). Charles Clarke, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for School Standards, complained that educational research 'has failed to meet expectations' and called for 'a commitment to developing evidence-based policy and practice' (Clarke 1998).

This political pressure has already produced interesting effects: the DfEE promptly awarded a grant to the Institute of Education (IOE), University of London, to establish a research unit and professorial post in Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice in Education (The Guardian, 7 December 1999, p. 15H) while in May 2000 Keele University established an EdD programme entitled 'Developing Education Policies: the Evidence Base' (The Guardian, 7 December 1999, p. 33H).

The publication of two strongly critical commissioned reports in 1998, one produced by James Tooley, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Newcastle (Tooley and Darby 1998) and the other by Jim Hillage, senior research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) at the University of Sussex (Hillage, Pearson, Anderson and Tamkin 1998), tempted the British media to cash in. A typical headline proclaimed: 'Dross, second rate, gobbledegook. This is how Richard Pring, James Tooley and Alan Smithers describe much educational research' (Baty 1998). No wonder that the editor of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Newsletter declared: 'Educational research is in turmoil' (Bassey 1998) and that in the 1998 BERA Presidential Address, Pamela Lomax complained that 'balanced critique has been all but lost and everyone is pushed to take sides' (1999:7).

Her successor in 1999 acknowledged that some educational research was 'too small-scale, too short-term, or too jargon-ridden or obscure in its written form ... not directly relevant to users and ... takes users for granted'. However, he also accused politicians of trying to stifle or ignore educational research which contradicted received wisdom or challenged policy (Mortimore 1999:11).

Other researchers were more outspoken in their condemnation of the political interference they saw behind the interventions of people such as Smithers and Woodhead. Blake and Smith (1997) angrily warned:

The slow emergence of what is valuable cannot be replaced by some Obergruppenführer checking for "usefulness" and bias during a three-month enquiry.
But educational research has long been the target of criticism. Certainly, there has been a long tradition of self-criticism. Over twenty-five years ago, the first BERA President complained that much educational research was 'badly done, amateurish, gimmicky, ... [and] often simply wrong' (Nisbet 1974:4). Among the problems Nisbet saw was an unacceptable gap between research and practice.

Evidence from the United States, New Zealand and Australia indicates that many of the anxieties in Britain are shared there too (Kaestle 1993, Labaree 1998, Lagemann 1997; Grace 1991; Australian Research Council (ARC) 1992). Indeed, Ellen Lagemann, a leading US educational historian, commented: 'One of the most notable aspects of the history of education research has been the constancy with which the enterprise has been subjected to criticism' (1997:5).

In New Zealand, Gerald Grace described 'a major cultural, ideological and political struggle' (1991:265). The postwar view of education as a public good was threatened by the increasingly powerful New Right view of education as a commodity in the market-place. Students became 'inputs', graduates 'outputs' and education itself a set of 'production functions' (ibid.:268).

In the US as in Britain, the fashionable fixation on 'usefulness' was apparent. Carl Kaestle, investigating the 'awful reputation of education research' (Kaestle 1993), described the central problem as the mistaken but widespread expectation that research could be justified only in terms of visible improvements in academic achievement measures. 'Usefulness' was seen almost entirely in these terms. It was only the occasional far-sighted official, like John Brademas, a co-sponsor in Congress of the National Institute of Education (NIE), who could see beyond the taxpayer's legitimate but exaggerated preoccupation with 'usefulness':

You don't put a nickel in the slot on Monday marked "educational research" and the results tumble out on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday you ship them off to the school system, and on Thursday the school system puts them into effect. (ibid.:23)
Increasingly evident in Britain, New Zealand and the United States, the obsession with cost-effectiveness was fuelled by the global commodification of education (Grace 1991; Elliott 1997). It also underlay the widespread concern that educational research should be directly relevant to practice.

The following year, David Labaree, utilising Becher's (1988) analysis, characterised education as 'the softest of the soft fields of enquiry' (1998:5), lacking the verifiable, definitive and cumulative knowledge-base considered typical of a 'hard' field. Education was also 'overwhelmingly applied in character' as the aim was 'not to establish general patterns but to solve particular problems'. Labaree noted that 'the broadly confirmed general perception of both the research and instructional programs of education schools is that they are weak' (ibid.:6).

Perhaps this paper too is weak. Perhaps I should stop right now, mortified by the comments of Geoffrey Walford, joint editor of the influential British Journal of Educational Studies. Returning from the 1999 American Educational Research Conference (AERA) Annual Conference, Walford was disappointed that many of the conference papers 'reported very small-scale investigations or drew simplistic conclusions from limited data'. Many others were weak either in presenting results or in providing theoretical contexts for the research. Frequently, presenters appeared to aim 'to have their name put on the programme rather than to present a paper where the empirical work and the analysis have been fully and clearly thought through' (1999:219).

Key underlying issues

So, given the nature and severity of all these criticisms of educational researchers, from both inside and outside the research community, why has it become so difficult for researchers ably to defend themselves? One reason is that any discussion around education immediately involves concepts which appear straightforward but which are in reality highly contentious. Indeed, terms such as 'education', 'citizenship' and 'democracy' are examples of what Gallie (1955) has called 'essentially contested concepts' (Troyna 1994; Carr and Hartnett 1996).

Careless of Gallie's insights, however, politicians and policymakers in Britain have consistently attempted the three-card trick of 'depoliticising' debate around education by introducing a new 'commonsense' discourse of standards, choice, quality, accountability and value for money (Carr and Hartnett 1996). The late and much-lamented Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, Sir Fred (later Lord) Dainton, noted the use of such siren language by Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education in the Thatcher government. In his introduction to the published text of Joseph's speech at the 1984 North of England Conference, Dainton commented:

[He] avoided the use of the expert's jargon, seductively substituting plain English nouns such as objectives, standards, breadth, relevance, balance and differentiation, comprehensible to ordinary folk whose views he invited. The speech seems the essence of reasonableness; in praise of virtue and against sin. (Dainton 1984:134)
But, nobody's fool, Dainton concluded: 'Let us hope that his crusade will be judged by history as The Great Improvement and not The Regression to Mere Instrumentalism' (ibid.:134).

Politicians have always sought quick, simple answers from educational research and have been frustrated when they have not got them. In 1976, Sir William Pile, then Permanent Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and Science, vented his spleen to a House of Commons sub-committee:

I have to say, of course, that the great thing about research is that part of it's rubbish and another part ... leads nowhere and is really indifferent. It is, I am afraid, exceptional to find a piece of research that really hits the nail on the head and tells you pretty clearly what is wrong or what is happening or what should be done. (House of Commons Expenditure Committee 1976, cited in Hudson 1976:377)
Today, a quarter of a century later, leading politicians and policymakers continue to market opinions as truths and to seek to persuade the public that definitive straightforward answers can be found to fundamental conceptual problems in education. Surely, Murray is right to use the recent experience in England to warn that 'it is a very dangerous thing for academics to praise their rulers, or to seek to be useful to them' (Murray 1999:4).

Usefulness for what? To whom?

In July 1996, Anthea Millett, Chief Executive of the TTA, borrowing Eccles's (Hansard 1960) classic phrase, described pedagogy as 'the last corner of the secret garden'. Millett saw pedagogy 'at the heart of teacher professionalism' and in this way justified attempts by the TTA to intervene. But Murray (1999) suggested that those who promote pedagogy do so at the expense of education and as part of a crudely instrumentalist agenda of 'usefulness' to social control. Education becomes at the service of government and its power structures and 'usefulness' becomes the key to social prestige and government funding.

Critics such as David Hargreaves (1996 and 1997) and Hillage et al. (1998) have seen the prime stakeholders, and therefore the judges of the 'usefulness' of educational research, as being state agencies. Other commentators, including the Conservative peer Robert Skidelsky (Hansard 1994a and 1994b) and Tooley and Darby (1998), have favoured the market, represented by 'users' or 'consumers'. Behind both perspectives lies the view that educational research is often merely 'trendy theory' (Goodson 1997), responsible therefore for many of the failures of public schooling, and insufficiently practice-driven. However, as Goodson points out, insistence on practical relevance is misleading for practice can be politically and socially prescribed and so practice-driven research opens a further door to political control.

What is a university for?

Many of today's concern's about 'usefulness' are far from new. Just as Moberly in 1949 had declared 'learning for learning's sake is the proper business of the university' (1949:37) so Bantock regretted the shift in the focus of university learning from knowledge 'for its own sake' to producing a 'trainable expertise'. He deplored the new discourse portraying education 'as a social service, or, worse still, as a commodity with much of the same ability to attract purchasing power as the washing machine or the television set; it is reduced to the level of a function of the economic state' (1963:86). In this highly instrumental view of education, education becomes a mere investment, 'a passport to the next stage on the journey upwards ... [and] ... not an education worthy of the name' (ibid.:87).

Bantock saw his own fundamentally 'liberal' or Platonic view of education as antithetical to the 'technical' view of education, requiring practical applications of knowledge to be demonstrated. Essentially the same anti-instrumentalist point underlies Reeves's (1988) defence of 'delight' rather than 'use' as the key goal of university education. It has also been made, but in a very much more provocative way, by the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton (1985):

We should not value education as a means to prosperity, but prosperity as a means to education.... Higher education ... must be pointless and irrelevant. Otherwise it has no value.
From a very different political perspective, Quicke (1988), echoing Bantock's premonitions, was critical not of a technical mode of education per se but rather of the increasing influence of New Right ideology, which would make the educational system more instrumentalist in orientation. This ideology incorporated a range of perspectives on educational issues, from the neo-liberal prioritising of market forces and freedom of choice to the neo-conservative emphasis on family values and the powerful state. All were, for Quicke, equally destructive of the foundations of liberal education, which 'values equality and universal education as well as the joy of learning, and the pursuit of human excellence' (1988:19).

In an open attack on political interventions, specifically by Blunkett and Woodhead, Ashcroft (1999) observed that the university's central role was 'to question, challenge and so to protect democracy'.

What is educational research and what is it for?

Most critics agree that educational research needs to increase its 'usefulness'; it needs to inform policymakers and practitioners and thereby improve classroom practice. Even the current BERA President, Peter Mortimore (1999:7) appears to concur: 'The main purpose of educational research is to further educational improvement'. So strong is the pressure to tie the value of educational research to measurable improvements in the classroom that other essential areas of educational research risk becoming marginalised. Little is heard in public about the importance of other kinds of research: for example, research into aspects of education outside the traditional classroom; or research into the history or philosophy of education, which serves to deepen understanding of educational issues but which may not have a direct effect on practice. But the message from the critics can often be blunt. 'The real test of research quality', argued Smithers (1995), 'is the difference it has made to education.' David Hargreaves, perhaps the most vocal critic, agreed but chose to define priorities even more narrowly: 'Educational research could and should have much more relevance for, and impact on, the professional practice of teachers than it now has' (1997:405).

But how and by whom should such essentially contested terms as 'relevance' and 'impact' be judged? All such judgements will inevitably have a political bias, whether acknowledged or not. This makes comparisons of judgements unreliable. Bassey (1992) rightly points out that conclusions drawn from painstaking research may be irrelevant to politicians whose fundamental beliefs about the future of society differ from ours.

Indeed, Pring (1995) argued that some areas of research popular among politicians and policymakers should not properly be termed educational. Citing research into school effectiveness and into the learning society as examples, Pring questioned neither the quality nor the usefulness of such research but merely their claims to be educational. For Pring, at the heart of education lay the Platonic quest for 'moral seriousness', defined as 'a concern to discover what is of value, what is worth pursuing, what kind of life should command our allegiance' (1995:108). Pring has urged educational research to shun the new discourse of 'inputs and outputs, value addedness and performance indicators, curriculum delivery and quality audits, however useful such language might be for other purposes' (ibid.:111). In pursuing 'the good society', Plato himself would surely have been dismissive of crude contemporary measures such as impact: 'the value of a philosopher's discourse is undiminished if it is delivered under a solitary plane tree with none but cicadas to hear' (Plato, cited in Murray 1999:4).

Some policymakers have taken a more pragmatic stand. The Chair of the Government's Numeracy Task Force, David Reynolds, blamed 'useless' educational research for 'damaging government attempts to improve teaching standards' and castigated, in particular, 'the research establishment's "virtual total ignorance" of teacher effectiveness'. He took up some of the same core concerns as Pring (1995) but from a radically different perspective, one which Bantock would no doubt have bitterly opposed:

There is a quaint, old-fashioned and ultimately highly damaging British view that teaching is an art. Higher education carries much of the blame for this view. It is responsible also for the second factor that prevents an applied science of teaching - the low status of applied and practical work in educational research. (1998:26)
In a sharp response, Tony Edwards, formerly Professor of Education at the University of Newcastle, accused Reynolds of 'trivialis[ing] the complexity both of the means and the ends of effective learning' (1998:30).

Central to the whole debate about the quality and value of educational research is the recurring question of the relationship research should have to practice and policy. For John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers, the links should be direct:

Research has to link with professional development or it has no meaning.... There has to be purpose to research. It has to offer practical solutions to problems. It has to be recognisable as important and has to connect with teachers' perceptions. (Bangs 1998:20-21)
Harvey Goldstein, Professor of Statistical Methods at the IOE, differed:
Educational research is not simply about institutions and teachers, it is also about learning at a fundamental level, about the role of society and culture and learning and about the interrelationships among all these factors.... It may well provide practical benefits, but above all it needs to be respected on its own terms, and not seen as a mere appendage to the current concerns of policymakers. (Goldstein 1998:33-34)

Defending the field

Defending educational research against the modern crusade for 'usefulness' has not been easy. Murphy responded to Smithers by distinguishing between the 'superficial' usefulness of some short-term, policy-driven research and the 'real' usefulness of much longer-term, more fundamental research (Murphy 1995). Following the Tooley Report, Foster (1997) voiced concern that the concept of 'usefulness' was being too narrowly limited to 'the discovery of how a centrally-prescribed curriculum can be most effectively "delivered"'. He saw such limitations as anti-democratic and called for greater respect for other kinds of research that contributed to value debates in the world of education.

Responding to criticisms in two major reviews of educational research (ARC 1992 and CERI 1995), Rudduck (1998:9) noted that whereas earlier criticisms had usually been contained within the research community itself recent threats had tended to come from outside sources. Beveridge admitted doubts about the 'overall quality of educational research or its value for money' (1998:95) but also warned that some academic institutions harboured a 'prevailing anti-intellectualism which runs alongside the views that all understanding and clarity of thought come from the "reality" of the classroom' (ibid.:105).

At the heart of the turmoil and anxiety in British educational research remains the key issue of 'usefulness'. But what does usefulness really mean? How and by whom can it be measured? Who is the usefulness to and when should the measurement be made? Usefulness, like 'impact' and 'relevance', is clearly a term that has a superficial common-sense appeal but, under examination, becomes increasingly difficult to define. Many of the critics, however, appear less troubled by the term: theirs is a clear, if narrow, vision of a usefulness linked exclusively to classroom improvement.

Significantly, David Hargreaves has recently tempered his earlier more outspoken criticisms and acknowledged that 'there are serious disputes about what constitutes sound and acceptable research' (1998:115). Beveridge too has observed that the nature of the search for knowledge through educational research is contested within the community: 'Some researchers accept that research could establish 'non-trivial' educational truths which persist across space and time, while others do not' (1998:94).

One of the central problems for educational research is that it is not a discipline but a fundamentally hybrid field of enquiry drawing its real strength from a small number of powerful parent disciplines. As Moberly pithily observed fifty years ago, many would argue that 'there is really no such subject' (1949:251). Balkanisation, which is often mentioned as a growing danger (Smith 1997; Hammersley 1998; Lomax 1998 and 1999) may simply be the inevitable centrifugal force that has acted on the field since its foundation and has, until now at least, been balanced by the centripetal forces of collegiality and a strong shared interest in schools and schooling.

It is unsurprising that many educational researchers are, as David Hargreaves (1998:117) himself noted, 'defensive about the quality and value of their work'. Although willing privately to acknowledge weaknesses in educational research, many researchers are clearly uncertain about how best to respond to criticisms (Dunseath 2000). Those showing the strongest signs of a fortress mentality might advise that heads should be kept carefully below the ramparts in the hope that the attackers will simply disappear. Alternatively, they might advocate 'aggressive defence' as the best form of attack and seek to launch an all-out offensive on the besiegers. Many would no doubt feel that a middle line of action is called for. This would require a greater receptiveness to criticism, the careful sifting of that criticism for validity, and the formulation of a considered, more systematic and more targeted response than has been the case until now. The importance of responding appropriately to the criticism has been emphasised recently by Lomax (1999). She warns of the increasing risk of balkanisation unless greater humility and openness are shown by researchers themselves in their responses.

But responding will not be straightforward. Part of the problem will be in deciding precisely what to respond to. David Hargreaves himself has admitted that 'Each critic of educational research tends to adduce a different set of weaknesses' (1998:117). Another difficulty is deciding how to respond. Arguably, BERA has been insufficiently proactive in helping to formulate a response to the critics. However, without a systematic effort to come together more across inherited disciplinary and methodological boundaries in order to explore commonalities, the educational research community risks fragmenting terminally under pressure from external forces. A change of culture may be required if existing cultures are too benign to grapple with the new realities of stakeholder expectations (Beveridge 1998). Perhaps Halsey (1992) was right to suggest that, in the face of attacks on autonomy, mild bewilderment is endemic in academe.


Underlying all the recent attacks on educational research and the responses to them are crucial notions about the purpose both of a university and of educational research. Pring (1998:17) has argued that the university's most vital responsibility is to ask 'uncomfortable questions' of those in positions of power. This may be true but it is also time to recognise that it is no longer possible in the age of accountability and audit for the educational research garden to remain secret. The public, including all interest groups such as government, policymakers and practitioners, must be allowed access in the inescapable interests of the new culture of accountability. In today's climate where flexibility is rightly demanded but the chimera of 'usefulness' mistakenly pursued, the challenge for educational research is to allow access to constructive reformers while at the same time excluding the despoilers. This echoes Lawton's warning nearly twenty years ago about the secret garden of the curriculum:
We need to open up the secret garden but we must also be sure to plan very carefully where the paths should lie. We also need to make sure that we can keep out the elephants. (Lawton 1980:324)
The elephants must be kept out of the research garden too; otherwise, there may be no garden left for the new landscapers.


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Author: Dr Kevin Dunseath, University of Sheffield, England
Phone +44 114 222 1781 Fax +44 114 273 9907 Email

Please cite as: Dunseath, K. (2001). Defending educational research in changing times. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 228-238. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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