The relationship between education policy and education evidence has never been easy. The realpolitik of education is pulled hither and thither by many horses, and research bases are only one of several influences. In 2010 the CfBT report Instinct or Reason: How education policy is made asked every surviving post-war UK minister what the principal reasons behind their policy decisions in education were. The answers were sobering, if unsurprising:
- Urgency – a sense that ‘something must be done’
- Ideology – the values and beliefs of policymakers
- International exemplars
- Electoral popularity
- Pressure groups
- Personal experience
- Research evidence
Notice research there; a dusty bottom.
There are many reasons why this is perfectly understandable, of course. Parties are elected to deliver a manifesto, which is composed to reflect the values and ideologies they seek to represent. Evidence that confounds or contradicts these platforms can be seen as an obstacle rather than an ally to the policy process.
But there is cause for hope. The growing and international appetite for evidence-informed education we see at researchED events and beyond is fuelling a renewed appetite for evidence-informed policy to drive that agenda.
Change in policy can be slow; ministerial churn can be fast. In this issue, I speak to Nick Gibb, the UK Schools Minister, a politician who, probably more than most in the UK, has spearheaded a drive towards evidence-informed education, particularly in the field of phonics and literacy, but also more broadly in pedagogy. This interest at a ministerial level in the affairs of what happens in the classroom has not been met with open arms, and Gibb has attracted criticism for walking into what was once described as the ‘secret garden’ of education.
It is easy for politicians and policy-makers to look to education for the engine of their reform programmes. The Jesuit philosophy of catching them young is attractive; you have a reasonably compliant cohort of tomorrow’s scientists and sailors who crucially, can’t yet vote. Society-building and vocational imperatives are also big drivers in policy behaviour. But where does the ambitious politico turn for expertise and answers? Why, the experts. But which ones? In a field as contested as education, it is understandable if politicians recruit advisors who flatter rather than inform.
Which is why evidence-informed education has never been needed more. Education strategies must be as evidence-informed as possible, from the classroom to the Oval Office. It is entirely right that democracies should define the goals of education; it is imperative that once that will has been conceived, evidence should be the backbone of how we seek to realise it.
Which is why at researchED we engage with everyone involved in the education ecosystem, from teaching assistants to cabinet ministers, with the ambition that informed and careful conversations will save us from the dogma and superstition that has characterised our extraordinary and turbulent profession. I hope you enjoy our second issue of researchED magazine, and find something to challenge, inspire and enthuse you in your practice.
Thanks for reading.