19, June, 2017

The trials of evidence-based education

By Professor Stephen Gorard, Durham University

Education like health, housing, and criminal justice is one the major commitments of the state to public service. But research on education has until recently been heavily criticised for not providing an evidence-base secure enough for such high public expenditure and such an important issue for young lives. The Evidence-based education (EBE) movement has addressed this but has so far not been widely accepted or successful. Practitioners and politicians continue to work largely without reference to the evidence available. Education is too important to proceed with this peculiar separation between evidence and practice. This book examines why it happens and what can be done about it.

The authors of this new book have been involved with all of the major EBE initiatives from the outset as researchers, and advisers, and on funding and commissioning panels (including IES, EEF, 3ie) – and in previous incarnations such as the UK ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme. The moves towards evidence-based education (EBE) are welcome and well-intended, and many improvements have been made as a result. However, progress has been sketchy for a number of reasons, including continued resistance from university academics, which means that the funding is disproportionately going to bespoke companies and organisations with an unhealthy reliance on repeat ‘business’. There have also been important methodological wrong turns. In trying to make this new approach to evidence more widely accessible and politically acceptable the funders have picked up too many of the bad aspects of the kind of poor research they had intended to replace.

This book presents innovative methods for the design, conduct, analysis and use of evidence from robust evaluations like educational trials. Some of the design and methods proposals in this book, such as the quality sieve and the simple sensitivity analyses, have never been presented together as a solution to the kinds of problems encountered in trials before. The results of thousands of studies are combined using these techniques, and their implications are spelled out for the research community, policy-makers, schools wanting to run their own evaluations, practitioners using evidence, and the wider public (who pay for research and who are the participants in education).

These will include those reading and wanting to critique the research evidence of others, and those thinking about conducting robust evaluations for themselves. It will be a key text for any school wanting to undertake their own evaluations, or for their research leads trying to pick their way through evidence for use in practice.

The book describes the promises, problems and new opportunities as the attention of funders moves from only being interested in attainment outcomes to political concern about character-building and wider educational impacts. The latter is novel and also too frequently misunderstood, as explained in the latter part of the book.

Money is being wasted and opportunities are being missed. It is time for change.

The trials of evidence-based education, now out:


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