Why Government education initiatives work – or don’t

04 July 2008

Cambridge Assessment’s fourth Parliamentary research seminar at the House of Commons – which was on the topic of what makes Government education initiatives succeed or fail – was attended by 60 key senior education professionals and MPs, generating a lively debate.

The seminar series are designed to bring together a wide range of professionals in education to look at 'big picture' topics and enable policy makers to access the knowledge of leading experts.

The event was chaired by Barry Sheerman, the Chair of the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee. Speakers included Kathy Sylva, Sue Burroughs Lange and Philip Davies who gave their different perspectives on what it is that makes Government initiatives succeed and take root in mainstream practice; how the best cutting edge research coming out of institutions can be adopted; and why sometimes ideas that appear to be strong when seen from a research perspective are not taken up by Government.

Professor Kathy Sylva talked about models for how researchers and policy makers can work effectively together. She used the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project (EPPE), commissioned in 1996 - and still ongoing - as a case study. She hoped that EPPE was a knowledge exchange partnership, a model designed to break down some of the barriers between researchers and policy makers. She acknowledged that it was, however, more expensive and pointed out that people have different priorities -researchers will often prioritise publication over the more involved process of influencing Government. She also suggested that there were difficulties in collaborating closely while maintaining necessary academic independence.

Dr Sue Burroughs Lange of the Institute of Education outlined her experiences in trying to encourage the uptake of the Reading Recovery programme. She asserted that there was a sound evidence base demonstrating the efficacy of the programme, and outlined the findings of a matched study that she was conducting, but that there had been resistance to its uptake in the UK. She believed that it could be very valuable to deploy value for money arguments in persuading people to adopt innovative solutions. She said that the misalignment of funding frameworks with new developments was probably the underlying reason for many of the difficulties that research based policies could face.

Philip Davies of the American Institutes for Research, who served in the Strategy Unit at the Cabinet Office, gave a presentation based on his experiences of evidence based policy making. He suggested that Civil Servants and researchers often had very different views and priorities. He brought out the alternative drivers of policy to research. He said that there was a need to integrate research with policy makers. He cautioned a research focussed audience however that much research was not suitable for policy makers and was sometimes of poor quality.

After the presentations there was plenty of scope for all those present to ask questions and make points of their own:

  • Lord Lewis asked the speakers what they considered were the main inhibitors to schemes like some of the outlined. Dr Sue Burroughs Lange answered that in respect of Reading Recovery, the principle one was that of cost both in terms of finding the money to run the programme but also in terms of recruiting the skilled teaching staff to carry it out.
  • Peter Lilley MP asked for more details on what Reading Recovery actually consisted of. Sue Burroughs Lange said that it was not, as it was sometimes portrayed, a magic bullet but rather a programme of carefully tailored interventions and a lot of hard work on the part of teachers.
  • Paul Springford of NAACE highlighted, as a governor of a small school, the fact that research could take a long time to filter down into the classroom because of poor links. Professor Sylva suggested that it was a shame that Governors were not able to access high quality advice on research.
  • Ken Purchase MP drew on experience from within his family to argue to the agreement of a number of participants that what delivered results was not necessarily a particular scheme, but that time and effort was invested in low achieving children.
  • Ron McLone, former CEO of OCR, spoke confirming what the speakers had said, that it was vital to better integrate policy and research and asking how this could be done more effectively given the vastly different sorts of people and degrees of engagement involved.
  • Amanda Spielman of ARK Online, asked the participants whether the antipathy to evidence based policy making was particularly acute in education. Philip Davies said that he could think of positive examples in other areas but that education did seem to be a relative laggard.
  • Brian Samuels of the NAHT asked for assurance that Reading Recovery was culture neutral.
  • Hilary Armstrong MP quoted from her experience in Government when, she said she had often been confronted with research that was of indifferent quality and felt that academics needed to be clearer in condemning research which they felt their peers were producing which was not up to scratch - she gave evidence which had deplored Sure Start as an example. In contrast to Ms Armstrong's contribution Barry Sheerman MP looked at the issue from the other perspective and observed that researchers, who often invested a considerable amount of time on piece of research, must be bemused by the rapid turnover of Government Ministers.
  • Professor Paul Black pointed to examples of research that had been ignored by policy makers. Professor Richard Pring brought out a number of positive examples of where research had made a difference to education policy. He made the final point. He remembered back to the early sixties when he said that the Civil Service had engaged more clearly and regularly with research.