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Grammar schools, Gove, and the role of research in education

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During the EU referendum campaign, former education secretary Michael Gove declared that people in the country were tired of experts. It was fitting for the time. We were all sick of experts. They were everywhere. We were unable to leave restaurants without being pecked at by aggressive experts. We were stranded inside, scared for our loved ones, as flocks of experts attacked our homes. In the end, we had to leave Bodega Bay behind and travel to San Francisco, because of the experts.

The potential return of grammar schools is perhaps a good idea in this Govean world where we’re sick of experts and evidence. As my colleague John argued in his blog post last week, support for grammar schools seems to be a victory of narrative over evidence. We tried grammar schools and evidence shows that they deepen inequality. It also shows that there may be more effective ways of boosting overall standards.

I spent my Saturday at the annual researchED conference, thinking a lot about evidence and its role in education. The conference was interesting and heartening, but there was an existentialist vibe to the event caused by a slight panic about the place of research and evidence in education. There was an underlying fear of redundancy – it’s great to hear about all this amazing research, but will it make a difference? Are speakers preaching to the converted? Will it have an impact outside of these four walls?

This feeling was reflected in the talks with titles such as “Does primary education need research?”, “Why don’t teachers engage with research?” and “If we’re all ‘sick of experts’ then what hope is there for evidence-based schools?”.

In the last of these talks, which you can watch online, Alex Quigley talked about how for all of us, rational decision making is often trumped by ideologies, lived experiences, and the temptation to make quick decisions. Furthermore, we often see winning the argument as the most important thing, so we pick and choose the evidence that supports our narrative and ideology. He says that this is especially evident with politicians, such as Gove, and is clearly an issue in political debates, such as the grammar school debate.

He believes that policy makers won’t change and that we’re not going to have rational, evidence-based policy. To me, this seemed to be a feature in Nick Gibb’s speech. Nick spent the speech praising the role of research in education, and then spent the question and answer session using evidence to support grammar schools that I felt was somewhat selective.

Within this national context, Alex argues that the best thing school leaders and teachers can do is try, within their own schools, to recognise their own irrationalities and focus on rational decision making and sharing evidence. This a grassroots approach to evidence-based practice. It relies on school leaders and teachers accepting they operate within a flawed irrational system, but trying to improve their own practice by challenging themselves, other teachers and the techniques and systems they use.

There are clear barriers to this. It requires self-motivation to keep up-to-date with research, and to encourage others to do the same. Alex also mentions problems around training, time pressures, and the complexity of making rational decisions.

But he also pointed towards the positives, in particular the rise of research schools and the potential help of the Royal College of Teaching, as well as possible solutions – urging researchers to do a better job of answering teachers’ actual questions in an easy-to-read and practical way.

Gary Davies, who presented the talk on why teachers don’t engage with research, was more pessimistic about the possibility of teachers becoming more engaged at a grassroots level. This is not the fault of the teachers themselves. His main issues are that there’s a lot bad education research out there. On top of this, a lot of it is expensive to access and it is often badly written. Teachers have to somehow find time to wade through the masses of research. They then have to pay to access it, only to find themselves with a jargon-heavy 20-page document. His talk mentioned many of the same barriers as Alex’s did, but Gary didn’t have the same glimpses of optimism. He saw no solution, outside of a government-funded centralised body that consolidates and summarises research for teachers. A recent blog post of his summarises the arguments of his talk.

Alex Quigley commented on Gary’s blog post and their discussion summarises the debate on the future of research in education. Both generally accept the same premise - that there's a lot of obstacles to education becoming evidence-based. The dividing line in this debate is whether these obstacles can be overcome by individuals and non-governmental organisations. Whereas Alex seemingly does, Gary seemingly doesn’t. I hope neither mind being used as the sides of this argument.

Between the optimism and the pessimism, it’s hard to know where to fall. I flitted between throughout researchED. Moments of optimism came while talking to other attendees, or while watching John Tomsett talk about how he turned his school into an evidence-informed research school. But then pessimism hit and you wondered if you were just in a very positive and enthusiastic research-loving bubble. Everyone at the conference was clearly enthusiastic about research, but what about their colleagues? What about the schools and teachers who simply don't have the time or money to attend conferences on education research?

The barriers pointed out by Gary and Alex clearly exist. And teachers have incredibly heavy workloads. They may not have time to be reading up on the latest research and trialling new strategies in the classroom. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) found as much when trialling their own research programmes.

The same EEF research found that the support of the senior leadership team (SLT) is critical when trying to improve teachers’ attitudes towards research. This support can’t be guaranteed, and this was even the case at researchED. A Twitter poll by an attendee at the conference asked how many people at researchED were funded by their school. 51 people responded, and only 18% said that were funded. The rest had paid for their own tickets.

For research to become more prominent in schools, many individuals working within education will have to challenge themselves, challenge others, overcome numerous barriers, and gain the support of their SLTs. They’ll need the help of organisations, such as other schools, research schools and research bodies like the EEF. It’s a tough ask, but maybe it’s possible. If you believe in the grassroots approach, you can start today by thinking about what actions you can take in your school to challenge yourself and embed research and evidence in your day-to-day work.

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