“THE SANDS OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH ARE LITTERED WITH THE WHITE BONES OF WELL INTENTIONED ENDEAVOURS”.
A Viewpoint. Paper presented at a conference. 1997.
The recent announcement to scrap the White Paper on ‘Lifelong Learning’, to be replaced by a series of consultation papers shows the fragmented situation as far as the Government’s long term strategic vision for education is concerned. This White Paper was supposed to draw together and respond to a number of pre-existing initiatives and research, namely Higginson, Kennedy, Fryer and possibly Dearing. One could add to these the ideas of the Labour Party in opposition on the Ufl, Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) and the National Grid for Learning NGfL). The waited for proposed consultation paper will further diffuse and dissipate the essential characteristics/purposes of Lifelong Learning. The White Paper would have provided a clear policy framework, backed up by legislation, that would have provided a sense of direction and purpose to all those researchers and practitioners waiting to respond. It is now difficult to imagine that a series of consultation papers will adequately replace the advantages of the White Paper and is reminiscent of the difficulties precipitated by the Dearing Trilogy. A framework which is comprehensive, consistent, long term and cognisant of financial, political and social dimensions is essential to allow research teams to formulate ideas of implementation associated with the dynamics of lifelong learning. Sadly, this litany fits all too comfortably with the previous Government’s track record of education/training policies. During their period in office innumerable initiatives were piloted/trialled with little attempt to fully evaluate their effectiveness both in terms of cost and long term benefit and now stand testimony to short-termism and political expediency.
Put these recent disappointments alongside the long-standing debate about the value of educational research and you are confronted with a discouraging scenario for education and training. Unfortunately, educational research has become increasingly politicised as so much in education over the past few decades. Accusations about political bias have abounded and many critics can be clearly identified in terms of their own political positions. A great deal of research has been dismissed. Many have argued that many of the research themes are too often irrelevant and trivial. Sadly, these polarised views can be mapped into the old fashioned and now highly questionable left/right axes. Long and often acrimonious arguments about the value of educational research have occupied many columns of the learned journals and the educational press.
Too often the ‘politicians’ have devalued and dismissed the work of educational professionals, both at the research level and amongst the practitioners who are attempting to adopt and then implement the findings of the research. Classic examples include streaming versus mixed ability teaching, gender issues related to achievement, depth versus breadth of the curriculum offered at the compulsory phase of education and indeed the post-16 phase. I do not wish to rehearse here some of the debates about the value of educational research but the fact that the Government has now dismissed the need for the White Paper on ‘Lifelong Learning’ reinforces that there is now a lack of direction from them. There is currently a proliferation of task and focus groups between which little connectivity is signalled, let alone connections with the existing and continuing influence of the quangos and the Government departments. Add to this disconnected array the various statements from the spin doctors and it is very difficult to imagine what the Government will require or indeed commission in terms of research to advance their thinking and embody their values. It is a very confused picture at present and the lack of direction is beginning to introduce a planning blight. Many researchers feel that this planning vacuum will truncate and damage and even cause regression in educational planning and development. Because of the uncertainties it could even damage current provision. The research and planning landscape is certainly fragmented. This is most certainly very evident in the area of curriculum reform, a good example being that at post-16. A number of very important developments have occurred, for example the creation of QCA and the increasing unification of the awarding bodies, but nevertheless the whole issue of whether there is likely to be significant reform in the post-16 curriculum is still very unclear. Very fundamental issues still remain. Will the curriculum frameworks remain or will they be reformed, and if so how significantly. Will it be an incremental gradualistic or a root and branch reform. Bearing in mind it takes a great deal of time to research and then implement curriculum reform, the research teams have already produced a great deal of useful information, for instance, about the advantages for example of a unified framework, bringing together the academic and vocational and others have argued and researched the need to just reform the existing pathways to establish connectivity between the pathways.
Many practitioners and researchers are unclear whether this Government wishes to see a root and branch reform or just an incremental approach. The really worrying issue is that this has introduced uncertainty into the research community and in many ways has paralysed the system. Many people seem unclear about what will happen and what research will attach to these important reforms if they are required. Time is not on our side. There is a real need to help educational providers prepare for the challenges of the next century and also develop a framework that can respond to the needs of lifelong learning and all that that carries.
There surely must be a clearly stated long-term strategic view about curriculum and qualification reform and that the researchers should be given a clear view of how they can play their part in helping politicians and educational professionals provide the evidence for those reforms. The currently fragmented and apparently random development of groups working largely in isolation from each other works against this, but also the fact that at any stage a political intervention or a spin can totally perturb the current position. What we need from the Government and its departments is a very clear and consistent vision that we can identify with in order to capitalise on the respective strengths of the researchers and practitioners.