Michael Gove and the future of educational research in Britain

How will the Government’s plans for teacher training affect research? Like a number of other countries, teacher training in England will involve an expanded role for schools. Michael Gove expects universities to work in close partnership with 500 designated teaching schools; he will designate a number of University Teaching Schools, which will combine teaching with teacher training and research. It also looks as though the Government intends to take an even closer role in setting approved numbers for initial teacher training, and meanwhile it is considering ending the requirement for lecturers in further education to possess a teaching qualification.

Almost everyone expects these changes to lead to significant reductions in teaching funding for university education departments. How else can the new partnerships be funded? And the new policies will be implemented in a context of austerity, where colleges and schools are looking to make savings in their training and development budgets, and where we are all wondering how potential applicants will view the new tuition fees. Finally, teacher education and development is already pretty turbulent: funded student numbers can go up and down, and one bad inspection report can jeopardise a whole programme.

Reductions in teacher training numbers, cuts in funding, and increased unpredictability: all of these will lead some universities to review their involvement in education. The most globally-minded have the least to lose in cutting education altogether; as they see it, the subject is volatile, poorly funded, attracts few overseas students, and does nothing for their global league table performance. Those universities that struggle to recruit at the best of times, on the other hand, may be keen to dance to any tune Gove calls, but are unlikely to fit his definition of excellence.

Elsewhere, there will be choices to be made, based on a range of criteria. I worked at a reasonably distinguished university that was deeply disappointed at the research performance of its education department, but took the view that links with a hundred local schools and their teachers were a valuable strategic asset. I know of other institutions where the decision will be much more finely balanced.

Even at best, we can expect many education departments to lose funding for their teaching. This will inevitably have consequences for their research. The reason is that hardly any university department, in any subject, can do decent research on the basis of its funding council grant for research. If it loses significant levels of teaching income, then the University will look to make savings. They can maintain research if the cuts are small, but if they are large enough, then they will have to cut back on core staff numbers.

Hence the impact on research. The recent fate of adult education research in British universities is a signal of what can go wrong. Most of the researchers were partly financed through the teaching grant, based either on their role in teacher education (mostly masters’ level courses) or in adult education (mostly part-time). Once the teaching went, the research income alone was not enough to sustain their activity. While there is still a body of research, it is much smaller than a decade ago – and much more fragmented, with much of it taking place outside education departments.

Should we care? There is a case for arguing that the education research community – expected to be the second largest discipline in the next Research Evaluation exercise – is artificially inflated by the presence of initial teacher education in the universities. The ESRC’s review of the health of the social sciences showed that many lecturers come from the field of teaching, and become active researchers at a relatively late stage of their careers. I have certainly heard it said that many of the late entry researchers have experienced a narrow and weak research training, and I’ve also heard it said that the discipline has a long tail of writing that is parochial, uncritical and lacking in rigour. So you could conclude that educational research is ripe for a cull.

Yet at its best, educational research in Britain is highly regarded. The latest QS world university rankings place four British (Cambridge, Oxford, the Institute of Education and King’s College) in the world’s top twenty. Nine come from the USA, three from Australia, and one each from Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore and Japan. This ranking is of course methodologically limited: it is often criticised for rewarding size, favouring systems with high levels of international staff, ignoring the ‘halo’ effect of prestigious universities, and relying on citations accounts that are biased towards English. But it is supported by other evidence suggesting that for its size, Britain’s educational research community is pretty strong.

Will the changes in teacher training damage this track record? Based on the recent experience of adult education research, I think it highly likely that it will lead to a significant erosion of research capacity. Whether this matters, other than to the individuals involved, depends of course on your view of what educational research contributes to the wellbeing of our society.

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One thought on “Michael Gove and the future of educational research in Britain

  1. Pingback: Michael Gove and the future of educational research in Britain | Post 16 Teaching & Learning @ Hull | Scoop.it

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