Science, education and politics

13 September 2016

Interview with

Professor David James, Cardiff University

Education is clearly a complicated subject, and there are lots of conflicting theories. So how much scientific research actually gets in to education policy? David James is is a sociologist and researcher in education at Cardiff University and he told Kat Arney how we decide to educate children...school child learning

Kat - So David,  basically the big question is, is there research supporting the way that children are taught?

David - There is. For a moment there I thought you were going to ask me a science question and I was getting nervous. Yes there is. I mean there's an awful lot of educational research, perhaps not as much as we need. In the five years up to 2014, the Research Excellence Framework process looks as the quality of education research, recorded about 290 million pounds worth of research in the education field in that five year period. That actually sounds like a great deal of money; it's not that much if you compare it to some branches of engineering or even, actually, psychology and neuroscience, but it's still sizeable. And that includes a lot of studies that are done by academics, sometimes academics working directly with teachers, and sometimes working directly with policymakers, and some of that research does have direct impact.

A good example might be a piece of work by Oakhill and Cain on the teaching of reading. There are many, many of examples of work that does find it's way through into legislation, into the curriculum, and into classrooms as well.

Kat - But what about the kind of ways that children are taught now.? I mean is everything that a kid will go through at school, is that based on evidence?

David - Definitely not! It's understandable that it's not based on evidence. You know we have a long tradition of schooling. If you think about where schools started, think why we have the subjects we do have at GCSE  - it's not because someone's done a thorough going study and decided that's what we need. It's partly because that's what went into the pre-grammar school curriculum a few hundred years ago.

So there's an awful lot of tradition, there's an awful lot of joint professional assumptions, many of which are useful, and many of which have on a daily basis proved their worth.

Kat - But then what sort of sciences are now feeding into education policy? You've mentioned psychology but what sort of scientific research does go into education?

David - That's a really good question because it's a pretty broad field and education is an interdisciplinary subject if you like. It draws on disciplines like philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, social policy, political science. All sorts of things get into the mix in different studies and that's seen as a good thing. I think the point I would make about it though is that there is a problem with the way in which the big issues in education are conceived very often and they're seen as sort of amenable to amelioration through work with individuals or  with individual learners, when often they are actually system problems, they're much bigger.

Kat - So these problems are really big that need addressing?

David - They're really big questions.

Kat - And say there are things that research throws up and says -  Oh, actually, this would be a really good idea if we started doing X like this. How do you get that information to teachers, to policymakers - what's the sort of the flow like from the research to the actual people on the ground?

David - Yes, it could be a lot better. There was a spell in the 1980s when some in policy circles were blaming education researchers for not working hard enough to do that. I think that's now seen as both a thing that's been resolved and to have been a bit politically motivated at the time as well.

These days there's also a perception that policymakers might take more notice of research than they do and there's some really good examples of that. A good example of a system problem would be some recent research on the children starting school,

and many parents will know that if you're born in August, you might be up to a year younger than your classmates when you start school. Now that difference traces right through to GCSE; there's actually a really significant difference in the net or average achievement at GCSE from those children who are younger in the classroom compared to the older children. That's really robust research, it's based on millions of cases, it uses advanced statistical techniques - it's really robust and rigorous.

Kat - We've talked about the kind of research from fields like psychiatry and sociology feeding into education and educational policy - what about some of the, I guess you could call them harder sciences? I'm thinking things like neuroscience, the real studies of the brain. Have they got benefit for how we teach our kids?

David - Well, they could have but, I think, a lot of the excitement isn't really warranted. The best way to explain that is to give some examples of what the really big questions are that face the education endeavour as a whole at the moment. Things like the persistent educational inequality in the relationship between people's backgrounds, socio-economic backgrounds, and so on, and the attainments that they end up with. That's a really persistent thing and it's got many facets to it. I can list just a couple of others quickly: how, for example specific public examinations that you've been talking about earlier in the programme (GCSEs) are not just used to measure attainment on the part of the individual student but they become this currency for measuring teachers, and schools, and headteachers, and all sorts of other things. In fact, to such a degree, at times it's almost absurd the reliance on those for comparing schools. Both of those problems are, actually, not amenable to much neuroscientific approach.

Kat - Yeah, you can't put people in a brain scanner and figure out income inequality.

David - No indeed. And furthermore, the problem with that is that there is already a tendency to individualise problems like that. For example, you hear politicians talking about raising aspirations amongst disadvantaged young people - that's quite a regular thing that you hear. But, actually, the research evidence shows there's no shortage of high aspirations across most disadvantaged young people - it's not about that.

Kat - People do want to do well?

David - Yeah they do and, on the whole, they really do. It's not about aspirations, it's about the nature of the system in which they're caught. You can bring to bare all sorts of systematic and rigorous research processes to look at those systems and say things about them that might be useful and might lead to positive change but the wrong place to look would be inside as it were, inside the individual, or to look at brain function first and foremost I would argue.

Kat - And is there anything that research has thrown up that you know of that would really make a difference that is just not being implemented? Is there one sort of thing like - ah, if we could actually do this, this would make a difference?

David - A really good example of that is this research work on summer born children. In this day and age of quite sophisticated data usage, it's really quite simple to use age adjusted test scores instead of treating everyone in the same school year as if they were the same. It's really simple to do that and what it would do is first of all give those individuals a clearer picture of where they are. It would compare like with like rather than comparing them with children who are much older and much younger than they are.

Kat - Clearly something that does need some work.

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