For at least twenty-five years, successive governments have promoted research engagement in schools. As science became central to government policy shaping all of our lives during the coronavirus crisis, I wondered what we might learn about the relationship between scientists and decision makers.
As spring became summer and then autumn 2020, the government’s claim to be ‘led by research’ illustrated how politicians use research to depoliticise debates by claiming the support of apparently neutral evidence and rational argument. With public confidence in them low, politicians appropriated research to signify their trustworthiness and commitment to the public good. Their critics, however, accused policy makers of the opposite – politicising research by conscripting its authority and expertise to defend their claims. When, for example, it was asserted that face masks made little or no difference when worn in public spaces, some regarded this as an attempt to ensure that public demand did not exacerbate the shortage of such masks in healthcare settings.
Techno-rationalism, technicism and technocracy
Science employs the language of mathematics to describe and analyse phenomena, allowing us to predict and control future events. Medical science and technology have been hugely successful at this; so much so that the theatre director, physician and public intellectual Jonathan Miller once complained that, as they become more reliant on technology, doctors draw less and less on their intuition. Nor do they consider how the past shapes the present. For years, ‘taking a history’ was central to the art of medicine, allowing doctors to place their patients’ symptoms in the circumstances of their lives, form trusting relationships and make human connections. Interestingly, it is now nurses who are the profession most trusted by the public; more so even than doctors. Nurses are trusted for their human qualities and not just their technical competence; they provide close care, often for extended periods, at times when patients feel vulnerable, and are regarded as dependable and honest.
In the mid-1990s, David Hargreaves compared education to medicine to argue that educational research should attend more to gathering evidence of what works and in what circumstances for use by teachers to improve student attainment. Since then, a new science of education (Furlong and Whitty, 2017) has imported methods from medicine, typically randomised controlled trials and systematic reviews, into education. Emphasising methodological rigour, this ‘evidence movement’ (Hammersley, 2005) couples randomised controlled trials with the view that effective schooling emerges through the workings of an ‘invisible hand’ in the education marketplace, leading policymakers to prioritise research identifying best practice. Another popular, but less thorough, approach uses standardized student test scores in international comparisons that allow the less successful countries to borrow policies from the more successful.
The evidence movement recognises disciplinary research in areas closely aligned to science, including neurology, cognitive psychology and statistics. The last of these includes school effectiveness research, the area in which Daniel Muijs worked before becoming head of research at Ofsted. Such work rests on the belief that mathematics, through science, can identify how the world is structured and so anticipate the consequences of change. This is evident in the review of largely international educational effectiveness research that accompanies Ofsted’s latest Inspection Framework. One example claims, ‘[student] achievement is likely to be maximised when teachers actively present material and structure it by: providing overviews and/or reviews of objectives, outlining the content to be covered and signalling transitions between different parts of the lesson, calling attention to main ideas and reviewing main ideas’ (Ofsted, 2019: 12). Of course, a critic might observe that this ‘structure’ provided by teachers may well constrain students; whilst teachers are positioned as active deliverers of knowledge, students are passive recipients.
Accompanying this view is a belief in the power of technology – the application of science – to improve peoples’ lives; advocating that all problems are solvable through rational and reductionist means. This techno-rationalist perspective recasts policy makers, or leaders with research expertise and those who draw on research to design solutions to specific problems, as technocrats. Teachers, whose practice follows protocols designed by others and based on principles derived from research, become technicians.
Recent events show, however, that ignoring the contested and transient nature of scientific knowledge and the ways in which this is used selectively by people representing particular value positions, is a sure way of unsettling public confidence. Nor should we disregard other ways of understanding the social world, particularly those focussing on the importance of relationships including sociocultural perspectives and critical analyses.
Traditionally, the art and craft of teachers was evident in their planning and pedagogy. These afforded a creative dialogue with practice for the benefit of students. Nowadays, busy teachers rely more and more on commercial resources that translate research into practice and are often marketed on the basis that they provide some competitive advantage. It is no surprise that such resources are popular, as they exploit the insecurities of school leaders and teachers by offering them ready-made, but expensive, solutions. Some of these materials are helpful, but inevitably they privilege singular visions of educational purpose and the nature of knowledge, teaching and learning, and position teachers as technicians required to follow the detailed schedules and activities provided.
Then again, school leaders and teachers are increasingly encouraged to become expert at using research to improve professional practice. There are various research evidence repositories available, curated by intermediaries; the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit is perhaps the most popular. Practitioners are implored to use this evidence to inform their practice, representing a technocratic view of the teaching profession, where the experts are also the decision makers. No bad thing, unless their expertise is shaped by the assumptions of intermediaries and restricted by their prejudices; what if they too privilege particular, singular visions of educational purpose and the nature of knowledge, teaching and learning?
Viewing education professionals as technicians or as technocrats are both problematic. Instead, perhaps we can learn from the sometimes difficult collaboration between politicians, public administrators and scientists during the coronavirus crisis.
Pluralism, democratic accountability and public trust in schools
At the height of the coronavirus lockdown, many leant from windows or stood outside their homes for a few minutes on Thursday evenings, shouting and clapping in genuine appreciation of essential workers. This was not to recognise technical competence, important though this is. Nor was it to celebrate their managers’ relentless pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness, important though this is too. Rather, it was in gratitude for something now regarded as a little old-fashioned; their commitment as public servants to provide for the welfare of all. Essential workers were seen to serve the public good despite personal concerns, some sacrificing time with their families to do so, and gained peoples’ trust because they clearly put the interests of others before their own.
Needless to say, we should not simply take for granted the trustworthiness of school leaders and teachers; it is fair to ask those paid from the public purse to account for their work. Nor is there harm in allowing educational enterprise to be rewarded when students benefit. And it is reasonable for education professionals to be open to the insights and challenges of research and expertise. But a line should be drawn when overzealous accountability, commercial interest or a single viewpoint distract or even prevent school leaders and teachers from serving the public good, especially when this undermines trust in the profession. Following this principle calls into question, say, the use of accountability measures that distort practice in ways that are more in the interests of school managers than students; or the reliance on expensive resources that reduce school leaders and teachers to technicians; or the use of inspection protocols informed by a partial and selective literature.
So, how can educators draw on research to ensure the primacy of public service and thereby maintain public trust? To begin, decision makers in education should balance an account of the benefits of mathematising (or datafying) education with a recognition of its limitations. This should be coupled with an understanding that a plurality of viewpoints bring different insights to the complexities schools and teachers face. Hence, it is important that decision making at all levels involves dialogues that draw on multiple perspectives whilst keeping human values centre-stage. And to maintain public trust, this process should be open and transparent to allow public scrutiny and support democratic accountability. This may seem a lot, but it is clearly important for state institutions to secure public confidence in uncertain times. The risks of not doing so are too great.
Furlong, J. & Whitty, G. (2017) Knowledge traditions in the study of Education, In G. Whitty & J. Furlong (Eds) Knowledge and the Study of Education: an international comparison, (pp13-57), Oxford, Symposium Books.
Hammersley, M. (2005) Is the evidence-based practice movement doing more good than harm? Education & Policy, 1(1), 85-100.
Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research, Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/813228/Research_for_EIF_framework_100619__16_.pdf [Accessed 01 July 2020].
For those who want to follow this up:
These people have written about effects of a competitive market on schools:
Ball, S. J. (2004) ‘Education For Sale! The Commodification of Everything?’. [King’s Annual Education Lecture 2004] Institute of Education, University of London.
Pratt, N. (2016) ‘Neoliberalism and the (internal) marketisation of primary school assessment in England’. British Educational Research Journal, 42 (5),pp. 890 – 905.
Thompson, P. (2020) School Scandals. Blowing the Whistle on the Corruption of Our Education System. Bristol: Policy Press.
These people have written about using statistics and ‘data’ and the effects on schools:
Bradbury, A. (2018) ‘Datafied at four: the role of data in the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood education in England’. Learning, Media and Technology, pp. 1-15.
Keddie, A. (2016) ‘Children of the market: performativity, neoliberal responsibilisation and the construction of student identities’. Oxford Review of Education, 42 (1), pp. 108-122.
Pratt, N. (2018) ‘Playing the levelling field: teachers’ management of assessment in English primary schools’. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 25 (5), pp. 504-518.