Research-engaged schools: Barriers & solutions

Written by: Harriet Barnes & Dr Rosalind Mist | Published:
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We have a wealth of high-quality educational research available in this country, yet clear barriers remain for teachers and others wanting to make use of this. Harriet Barnes and Dr Rosalind Mist explain

It is a fascinating time to be thinking about research relevant to education, with debates around AI and the future of work, apocalyptic predictions of robots “stealing” jobs and fears for the future of “screen-addicted” young people.

What is clear is that young people need the best possible education if they are to thrive in this rapidly changing world.

Governments across the world spend billions on education, making countless crucial decisions about how to deploy those resources. In turn, teachers dedicate countless hours to their profession, and want to know how they can best help their pupils to thrive.

Getting it right matters. It seems obvious that educational research should be able to offer evidence and insight to help teachers, but that doesn’t seem to be happening in the coordinated way it could – and should.

The British Academy and the Royal Society recently looked at this issue, seeking to understand how research filters through the education ecosystem to the people who use it – teachers, of course, but also policy-makers and government.

Our report, Harnessing Educational Research, explores this challenge and what we can do to help the education ecosystem harness the power of educational research better.

The education ecosystem

Research on education does not exist in a vacuum. Teachers and school and college leaders, higher education providers, independent research organisations, publishers, funding bodies, and governments and their agencies all have a stake in how our education system works, and the outcomes they want young people to achieve. There is a fantastic array of educational research happening in the UK: in the last assessment of the quality of UK research (the Research Excellence Framework in 2014), two-thirds of all outputs were rated as “excellent”.

Over the last few years we have seen the growth of a number of initiatives which aim to help teachers connect with this excellent research, like ResearchED and MESH.

Furthermore, a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 60 per cent of secondary teachers and 45 per cent of primary teachers are using the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which provides summaries about which educational strategies work. And the Research Schools Network has created local hubs to champion the use of evidence to improve educational practice.

However, despite all these developments, we found that there are many barriers stopping people, money and ideas from flowing freely.

The challenge of time

We know that teachers recognise the importance of using evidence to improve their practice. But they also repeatedly indicate that their working conditions do not enable them to spend time reading research to improve their understanding or to determine how to use it to adapt their practice.

These activities must fit around the day-to-day practice of teaching. Factors such as repeated curriculum changes, demanding systems of accountability and shortages of experienced teachers, also limit the amount of time that teachers can spare.
Senior leaders are crucial to creating an environment where teachers have time and motivation to engage with, or participate in, research and other professional development activities.

Lack of shared goals

We also found that a major obstacle towards a joined-up system in education is a lack of shared goals.

Teachers, researchers, and government may share common aspirations for young people, but they have different perspectives on what the priorities for education should be. Research funders and those that train teachers can also pull in different directions.

Education is, and always has been, a politicised area. Decisions are often shaped by ideology, from politicians and policy-makers, as well as teachers themselves.

It would be unrealistic to recommend that we take all the politics out of education, but we can encourage those involved to work together more closely to address the big strategic questions – and without compromising on academic, professional and political independence.

Bridging the gap

This where the British Academy and the Royal Society’s call for an Office for Educational Research comes in.

Bringing together devolved government, teachers, research funders, and academics, the Office could review opportunities for educational research, explore where there are shared priorities and help to facilitate collaboration.

As an independent body, it would identify and look at ways to address mismatches in the system.

For educational research to be effective, it requires researchers to be close to practitioners, to engage directly with schools, and to ensure that school leaders can engage most effectively with research.

The Office could therefore also address stark regional disparities. Educational research capacity is concentrated in London and the South East, but there is a severe lack in other parts of the UK, such as Wales and the North West of England.

The Office could use its coordinating role to create collaborations that enable teachers, researchers and policy-makers to work together on a regional or thematic basis to explore issues which can’t be solved by one group alone.

Building on the success of the Office for Strategic Coordination in Health Research in the NHS, the Office of Educational Research would be sector-led and require very little investment beyond administrative costs and the collaboration of those involved.

Many of the building blocks for harnessing educational research are already in place – but there are opportunities to work more closely together to ensure that evidence is at the heart of the teaching and policy decisions that can make a real difference to the lives of young people.

  • Harriet Barnes is head of policy (higher education & skills) at the British Academy and Dr Rosalind Mist is head of policy (education) at the Royal Society.

Further information

Harnessing Educational Research, a joint report from the British Academy and the Royal Society (October 2018), can be downloaded at http://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/projects/harnessing-educational-research


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