A Research Strategy for Scottish Education: a cautious welcome for a long overdue initiative

Here is a reblog of my post on the new Scottish Council of Deans of Education blog – http://www.scde.ac.uk/2017/05/15/a-research-strategy-for-scottish-education-a-cautious-welcome-for-a-long-overdue-initiative/

On 2 May, we saw the long awaited publication of ‘A Research Strategy for Scottish Education’ (see  http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0051/00512276.pdf). This is a welcome step forward in enhancing the capacity of Scotland’s educational community – researchers, policymakers and practitioners – and to draw more effectively on research when formulating policy and developing practice. The publication of this document follows a long period where policy has been made and implemented with little apparent cognisance of the value of educational research, and following strong criticism by academics and learned societies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh of the apparent lack of independent research in Scottish education. Most recent, was the recommendation from the OECD that the Government should ‘Strengthen evaluation and research, including independent knowledge creation.’  (https://www.oecd.org/edu/school/improving-schools-in-scotland.htm).

This neglect of research has not always been the case. For example, Brown and Munn (1985) identified five main features of the 1982 Development Programme for secondary third and fourth year curriculum and assessment, including a research programme to support and inform development. It is good, therefore, to see a re-emergence of higher profile for research in policymaking and practice, and it is to the credit of the Scottish Government that they have not only acted quickly to remedy this situation, but have also actively involved the academic community, through focus groups, in developing the new strategy.

Specifically, I welcome the following in the new strategy.

  • Recognition of the importance of research to the education system in Scotland.
  • Recognition that practitioners need to engage with relevant research findings, and that there need to be accessible channels and mechanisms to achieve this.
  • Recognition of the importance of practitioners as enquirers/researchers into their own professional practices and settings – and that this is a collaborative professional imperative.
  • Recognition of the importance of collaboration across education stakeholders/sectors, for example bringing together academics and teachers.
  • An affirmation of the importance of independent research – particularly to offer challenge to the system. This is a welcome counter-balance to an oft-heard assertion that inspections provide research evidence about educational contexts – as has been well-documented, inspections, while having a place in modern education systems, are heavily associated with performativity and, as such, their reliability and validity is open to question. Welcome the formation of a Scottish academic reference group
  • A recognition that data literacy – as a wider attempt to build practitioner research capacity and infrastructure – is crucial, as all data are subject to interpretation. The suggestion of funding for sabbaticals and master’s/PhD level study for practitioners seems sensible.
  • The commitment to develop capacity in the academic research community for quantitative/secondary data analysis. This is currently under-developed and much needed.
  • Provision for funding, including a reference to compensating for the likely reduction or withdrawal of EU funding. The strategy makes reference to ‘Provision for self-directed research by academia and other nongovernmental institutions. This implies funding, either by non-specific grants or endowments. This could be provided through existing mechanisms (e.g. Scottish Funding Council, Research Councils) or by challenge funds whereby organisations are encouraged to bid for grants within broad parameters.’ (p8).
  • An interesting reference to promoting research into non-standard educational approaches. More detail would be helpful here.

While there is much to welcome here, the document rings one of two alarm bells for me. These are largely issues relating to language and tone, but will need careful attention as the strategy is developed into workable procedures and practices. First, the strategy appears, in places, to conflate of data and research – and also appears to reduce data to statistical data. Research is more than data; generation of data is only part of the research process, which also requires attention to analysis and interpretation, as well as ethical considerations.

Second, the language of ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ is a little worrying, given the high profile of critique of these notions in recent years. Such language frames approaches which potentially neglect the importance of context. I am perhaps being pedantic here, as to be fair, the strategy also uses more nuanced language. For example, it states, ‘translating international lessons into the Scottish context and developing new Scottish research evidence’ (p4) and:

What has been shown to work in the past may no longer be true now or in the future. In addition, we need evidence from Scotland to understand if lessons from other countries are genuinely applicable in the Scottish education system where organisational assumptions may differ greatly. (p9).

Such nuance, which implies a cognitive resources (Hammersley, 2002) approach to research, sits uneasily with the harder ‘what works’ discourses and their more scientistic assumptions about the generalisation of research, which have been associated in the recent past with the development of ‘must-do’ techniques, rather than professional judgement and interpretation of research resources (e.g. as was evident in many schools with the roll of out of Assessment is for Learning (AifL) in Scotland, and in particular the uncritical implementation of what have come to be known as AifL techniques).

Third, the strategy seems too closely aligned to current policy, which is taken as given. The Government would benefit from engaging more explicitly with current research discourses around impact, and especially the ways in which pathways to impact might be created. This in turn would allow the benefits of research for policy and practice to be more fully exploited, potentially leading to significant shifts in policy and practice. The ESRC toolkit on research impact is a useful resource in this matter (see http://www.esrc.ac.uk/research/impact-toolkit/). The toolkit makes reference to different ways in which research might have impact:

  • Instrumental: influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour
  • Conceptual: contributing to the understanding of policy issues, reframing debates
  • Capacity building: through technical and personal skill development. The implication here is that research agendas might be driven by current policy imperatives, rather than informing them.

While many of the sentiments evident in the research strategy align with these impacts discourses, the overall message feels somewhat muted in the face of an apparent desire to see research unequivocally support current policy, rather than informing future policy development.

Despite these quibbles, I remain optimistic that the new Research Strategy is an important development with many positive implications for policy and practice in Scotland, and for the development of future productive and symbiotic relationships between researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders in Scottish education. I look forward to seeing it unfold.

References

Brown, S. & Munn, P. (eds.)(1985). The changing face of education 14 to 16 : curriculum and assessment. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.

Hammersley, M. (2002). Educational Research, Policymaking and Practice. London: PCP