Evidence-informed policy and practice – we should welcome it, but also be realistic!

Can randomised controlled trials make the leap from medicine to the world of education? Geoff Whitty gives a guarded welcome to a DfE report that suggests they might improve both teaching and policy formation.

Conducting researchLast week, the Department for Education (DfE) published ‘Building Evidence into Education’, a paper by science and medicine guru Ben Goldacre that argued that we could make much better progress in education if we made more use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to inform educational policy-making and classroom practice.

The basic idea is not new. For many years, most of the educational research funded by the US federal government had to adopt this medical model, which is based on the way new drug treatments are trialled.  What is refreshing about Goldacre’s paper is that it acknowledges and discusses some of the limitations of this approach, especially in the educational context. Indeed, he (and one hopes the DfE as well) concedes right away something that the US government recognised only very recently. To cite the words of the US National Board for Educational Sciences in 2010, research needs to ask not just ‘what works’, but also ‘how, why, for whom, and under what conditions’.  

Answering these more nuanced questions often requires other forms of research, some of it qualitative rather than quantitative or experimental.  We also need philosophical inquiry into whether the things that policy-makers or teachers want to do are worthwhile in the first place.  Just establishing ‘what works’ and then basing education policy and practice solely on that is unlikely to be an attainable goal, or even a wholly desirable one.

None of this is to argue against Goldacre’s plea that RCTs should be part of the research mix in education or his view that what I would call ‘research literacy’ should be part of the initial and continuing professional development of teachers – and ideally of politicians as well!  But there are some ironies in the current interest in this approach on the part of policy makers. 

My former Institute of Education colleague, Ann Oakley, made a very similar case for RCTs in education many years ago, while also recognising their limitations.  The big problem at the time was a lack of funding on anything like the scale needed to realise her dream.  It seems that may be less of a problem for Goldacre, particularly with the recent welcome investment in RCTs by the Education Endowment Foundation. 

As for liberating teachers by developing research literacy during teacher training; many courses used to attempt just that before the content of initial teacher education became driven by central government diktat after the creation in 1985 of the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the forerunner of the TTA, TDA and now the Teaching Agency.  Let’s hope Goldacre can persuade the government and Ofsted that research literacy is an important aspect of professional formation and get it written firmly into the standards against which teacher training is judged.    

Even then, we must be realistic. While we might wish education policy to be informed by robust research, in reality it is driven by all sorts of considerations. The findings of educational research will often be rather low down the list. Other influences on politicians include funding, the requirements of staying in office and the beliefs, commitments and prejudices of their advisors and constituents.  Teachers too have many pressures on them other than imperatives derived from education research.  This will be true however research literate they are, and however good researchers may be at presenting their findings in accessible ways.

So two cheers for Ben Goldacre for his intervention. I am happy to support his call for more RCTs in education, although they may well prove better at telling us what doesn’t work than what does.  But if that leads to politicians abandoning politically appealing but educationally ineffective policies, that itself will be progress of sorts.

Geoff Whitty is Director Emeritus of the Institute of Education, University of London, and Professor of Public Sector Policy and Management at the University of Bath.

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