Another Year, Another BERA

This year the British education research establishment decamped to sunny Brighton for BERA 2013.  As the incoming BERA President Ian Menter (University of Oxford) noted in his presidential address, this is a crucial time for education research.  Foregrounded by Raymond Williams’s notion of the long revolution and the short counter-revolution, Prof. Menter observed that it is incredible and shocking how quickly and profoundly William’s prescient question has been answered,

It is only a question of whether we replace them by the free play of the market, or by a public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture. (Williams 1961: 176)

Yep, that one didn’t go so well for democracy and the good guys…

BERA is a fairly big conference and so any perspective of it can be partial but mine was of education being discussed through a series of borrowed lenses:

There was education as evidence.  Since, and indeed before (read this), Ben Goldacre’s foray into education research posing the importance of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) there has been a back-and-forth debate about the apparent insufficient amount of RCT research in education.  The lack of sound evidence on which to base ‘what works’ is a focus of much debate (Bennett 2013) and significant initiatives (e.g., the Education Endowment Foundation).  I spoke to advocate of RCTs in education and she thought that the medical profession had reached a stage higher than teaching, founding practice on evidence.  It would be ridiculous to think that evidence isn’t important but as Frank Furedi was reported to have said recently “if I am ill, I am quite keen to know that the medicine I am given will cure me. But children are not an illness. They are not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be nurtured and embraced” (read about this here).

Then there was education as practice or more accurately evidence-based practice.  There has been a definite surge in interest in evidence-based practice in recent years (e.g., Petty 2006, Hattie 2008, Higgins 2011).  This narrow focus, again, on ‘what works’ threatens to distance critical educational research from the ever-present imperative for teachers to improve practice to, as the logic goes, improve results.  As funding and pooling of resources is located closer to schools there is a danger that considerable research efforts will be focused upon this narrow agenda.  Furthermore, in his keynote address, Chris Husbands (IOE) described the risk of academy chains becoming autarkic, with considerable resources being invested in developing the best practice but this knowledge remaining within the academy chain, protected by intellectual property and commercial interests. In the US the Relay Graduate School is an example of a for-profit provider of education practice although the audience at BERA erupted with laughter at the advice offered in one video (watch it here), “She means it… She’s got a timer!”

Following on from this was education as practitioners.  There seems to be a long-running theme in education of wistful and inferiority-inducing comparisons between teachers and other professions.  Under New Labour teachers, well head teachers in particular, were compared with business leaders and expected some of them at least to be as good as the best in business.  Since Hargreaves (1996) there have been largely unfavourable comparisons between teachers and doctors, recently stoked by Ben Goldacre’s (2013) advocacy for education to imitate the use of RCTs in medicine.  I spoke to a therapist and she suggested that teachers are more like therapists than doctors because in research on the efficacy of therapy the focus is less on the form of therapy, the ‘thing’, which would correspond to the molecule in medicine or practice in education, there was a focus on the relationship between the therapist and the client.  Interesting perhaps but… well, see below.

Finally, as ever, there was education as policy defines it. This is turning into a fairly long blog, and we all know what this means…


The point I would like to make is that thinking of education in terms of evidence, practice, practitioners, and policy are ways of avoiding discussing the purpose and significance of education on its on merits in relation to young people and society.  Furthermore thinking of education as evidence/ practice/ practitioners/ policy are in effect engagements within the terms of the de-politicised, de-professionalised, technocratic, privatising and so on of the Right view of education, and so we will remain within the terms and territory of the short counter-revolution.  This is not to say that evidence, practice, practitioners, and policy are not fundamental to educational research but until we can be clear about what education is as, Williams outlined, ‘public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture’.

So how can we respond?  I turn for inspiration, as with all matters, to the TV show the West Wing. The West Wing is salve from heaven from frustrated lefty types who wish for a better world or at least better people in charge of a pretty much similar world.  On education, Sam Seaborn, says,

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

Also, from the West Wing is ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ the idea that the sometime hesitant President Bartlett should not be courageous and fight for the things that matter. So ‘Let education be education’.

89350A starting point can be found in the initiatives where academics and practitioners have started discussions about the purpose of education.  There was PurposED, an online campaign – now decommissioned – that asked people to write 500 words on the purpose of education.  The ASCL have launched the Great Education Debate that in part seeks to discuss the purpose of education.  It’s also in discussions that are taking place around the Co-operative School Movement (see here).  John Schostak and I are developing the Collaborative Action Research Platform in response to the one-sized fits all approach to practice, and the clear need for teachers to develop and hone their craft of educating young people to contribute to and participate in a democratic society.

To reiterate: evidence, practice, practitioners and policy are important but only as guides, styles, forms and nudges towards a destination.  Our choice is whether this is higher PISA rankings or true democratic society?

James Duggan

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