Will evidence improve the education debate?

Journalists rarely use research to inform their writing on education; a new centre aims to make it easier for them to base their pronouncements on evidence.

Three microphones set up on tableIf you follow the news, you'll have seen the headlines saying that the increase in tuition fees at English universities caused a drop in the number of students. But did you also read that if you look beyond fee increases, it's not the cost which makes it more or less likely you`ll head for university, but your GCSE and A-level results?

Did you also catch the news bulletin suggesting that the generosity of grants and loans trumps the cost of fees in the decision to apply to university? And did you also hear that across developed countries, those with high levels of fees but also high levels of student financial support have a greater take up of higher education than countries offering low levels of students grants and loans, even if their fees are low too?

And if you're concerned about the numbers of young people out of work, have you picked up in the news that the recession is not the root cause of youth unemployment? That the important factor is a significant shift in employers' attitudes to recruitment over the past 20 years, where risk-averse employers opt for the growing pool of older, experienced workers and immigrants over the young?

And when it comes to media reports that some schools are wasting the pupil premium, earmarked for disadvantaged children, did you read about the research evidence supporting the criticism that some headteachers are spending money “indiscriminately on teaching assistants”? It suggests that inadequately trained teaching assistants often have no impact, or even a negative impact, on pupils struggling to read and write.

I suspect the answer to all these questions is “no”.  And the reason these richer, fuller insights are missing from the media coverage is simple. Journalists and education researchers don't talk to each other enough. In fact, in my experience they hardly talk at all.

I became a BBC Education Correspondent in the frenetic “education, education, education” Blair years. Schools were regularly in the news, but as policy announcements flowed I rarely turned to academics for an off-the-record steer or an on-the-record comment. Instead union leaders, inspectors, even ministers were much easier to reach, and readier to give a comment or interview. They had a good understanding of my needs and, importantly, my deadlines.

What a shame, because at its best, education research can add great value to the public and policy makers' understanding of education. This conviction has led me and others to work towards the establishment of the UK's first independent Education Media Centre. Its aim is to advance the public debate and understanding of policy and practice in education, by helping journalists reach and make better use of good research evidence.

Baroness Estelle Morris has driven the project with Dr Jonathan Sharples from the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, and the Centre will soon be registered and begin to operate as an independent charity. We are supported by a range of high profile patrons, all with a keen interest in improving the use of research and evidence. They include John Dunford, Greg Dyke, David Puttnam, Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, Lord Adonis, Baroness Gillian Shephard and Lord Willis.

Our project has been inspired by the success of the Science Media Centre, and by a desire to offer an independent, authoritative and practical alternative to commentators who rely on hunches, assumptions, vested interests and bias in the media coverage of education. The EMC will have no political or ideological agenda of its own, except to act as an objective go-between for the media and academic research and expertise.

EMC operations will include a fast, media-focused service reacting to breaking news and running stories, connecting journalists to academic expertise via our comprehensive, high-quality database. We will also arrange news-making briefings providing journalists with original education stories generated by fresh research.

If you are a journalist, you’ll be able to call the EMC for easy access to media friendly academic experts on your subjects. If you are an academic we will help you communicate your findings via the media to people outside academia who want to know more about education.

Like the SMC, the EMC will be funded entirely by donors. Our funding model is to attract relatively small sums of £2-3,000 from numerous individual organisations. This guarantees our independence and, we hope, is a realistic ask in current financial circumstances. To date we have raised 90 per cent of the £195,000 that we need for our first 18 months of operation.

If you are interested in finding out more about the independent Education Media Centre please contact me, Sue Littlemoreor Jonathan Sharples.

Sue Littlemore was a BBC Education Correspondent for fifteen years and now contributes to the Guardian. She is a founding patron and co-director of the Education Media Centre.

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