Could a research-literate teaching profession force governments to back off?
Given the RSA’s long tradition for running successful, influential commissions and Inquiries, it’s not surprising that we are often asked to lead commissions on various aspects of public policy. Too often, however, the instigators are frankly not that inquiring – they see a commission approach as a subtle marketing ploy to pitch solutions they already have in mind. Whenever these suggestions pass my inbox, I ask one simple question: “is this just a campaign masked as an Inquiry?”
I asked this of the British Education Research Association’s (BERA) approach to us this time last year to work on an Inquiry into the role of research in UK teacher education. Refreshingly, from the beginning, it was clear that BERA’s focus was on improving outcomes for learners, and wanted an Inquiry that was guided by the evidence rather than the interests of their members.
Our final report, launched today, demonstrates how the Inquiry has stuck to these principles. Ultimately, we are convinced that the four UK nations’ attempts to create world class, self-improving school systems will fail unless greater prominence is given to teachers’ engagement with research, and attempts are made to ensure that all teachers become ‘research literate’. However we make no special pleading for the role of universities or academics in this process. Success will be predicated on partnerships (especially with the growing Research-Edcommunity I blogged about here).
The evidence we gathered is clear about the positive impact that a research literate and research engaged profession is likely to have on learner outcomes. Despite this, we found that teachers’ experience of professional development in most parts of the UK is “fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research” in contrast to that of internationally well-regarded education systems such as Finland, Canada and Singapore. Too often, schools’ ability to make a long-term commitment to creating a research-engaged workforce is being undermined by a target culture and short-term focus on exam results.
The Inquiry makes the case for the development across the UK of self-improving education systems in which all teachers become research literate and many have frequent opportunities for engagement in research and enquiry. This requires that schools and colleges become research-rich environments in which to work. It also requires that teacher researchers and the wider research community work in partnership, rather than in separate and sometimes competing universes. Finally, it demands an end to the false dichotomy between HE and school-based approaches to initial teacher education.
We concluded that everybody in a leadership position – in the policy community, in university departments of education, at school or college level or in academy chains and other intermediaries – has a responsibility to support the creation of the sort of research-rich cultures which can both improve outcomes and close attainment gaps.
To achieve our vision, we identified ten principles that characterise the design of research-rich, self-improving education systems, organised across five themes:
These principles can be used as criteria against which to assess any education system’s approach. They also informed our recommendations for each of the four jurisdictions in the UK. This included establishing a National Network of Research Leaders in Education in each country and changes to the regulations governing teacher training and school inspections.
When I tell the story of the RSA’s education history, I give three examples from the 19th Century: The creation in our House of a new kind of chimney sweep; the campaign for girls’ education which led to the creation of the Girls Day School Trust; and the 1870 Inquiry into the state of education which recommended that government should create a Department for Education. Speaking to a conference for headteachers recently, one heckled back “well, two good ideas out of three isn’t bad!” Although a research-literate profession is no magic bullet to raise standards, it might provide the glue that helps all education interventions and programmes to be more effective and productive. As I wrote in an earlier blog if you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom? “research literacy matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.” Get this right (and the UK’s data-drenched education systems provide strong foundations to build on), and perhaps the RSA’s next Inquiry can call for the virtual abolition of the DfE. Although of course, we would never be foolish enough to start with such a solution in mind.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education Follow me @joehallg