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Criticising Whitehall from the safety of an ivory tower?

  • 1 April 2016

Ian Menter, Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Oxford and Vice-President of the British Educational Research Association, has written a furious blog post condemning the Department for Education of misusing his research, which went live earlier today.

On page 29 of the recent white paper on, it says: ‘We know that when teachers have extensive ITT [Initial Teacher Training] in schools, they perform better’. An accompanying footnote cites some of Professor Menter’s work, but he says this is both a ‘misuse and abuse of evidence’.

Using an old trope common in critiques of educational policymakers (see, for example here), he marks the work of the authors and finds it wanting, concluding they deserve ‘a fail grade, an E’. He even finds room for a remarkably patrician attack on the quality of today’s civil servants:

I just hope that the authors were not educated at the University of Oxford; that would be an enormous embarrassment for us as well as them.

As a result, we should now consider whether we can no longer:

take any use of evidence by this government seriously when they are capable of such shoddy and cynical practice.

On the main points, Professor Menter is of course correct. He knows his own research better than anyone. He can tell when it has been used incorrectly. There is no particular reason to think anything he says is wrong about the relative merits of different types of teacher training. Government papers tend to be finalised in a frantic rush, which can lead to shortcuts.

But I can’t help thinking that he has attacked the wrong target by completely ignoring the atmosphere of the policymaking environment. No civil servant I have ever come across would wilfully misrepresent research – even if they were tempted, the chances of getting caught are too high.

The problem is unlikely to be down to the calibre of civil servants and more likely to be a mixture of:

  1. the speed at which they are expected to change jobs if they want to be promoted, which hinders true expertise;
  2. endless departmental reorganisations (sped up by austerity);
  3. a lack of time for officials to get out and visit institutions and discuss issues directly with researchers;
  4. no output to published academic output (there’s no institutional log-in for Whitehall);
  5. and limited institutional memory.

Such things are in Whitehall’s power to solve (though there’s no reason to think they will any time soon). I discussed how some of them relate to higher education policymaking here.

This all matters because attacking civil servants (who cannot easily answer back) risks absolving the academic community of the need to reach out and meet officials halfway.

Any academic who knows the Government are about to produce a paper on their area of expertise has an enormous amount to gain and nothing to lose from stretching out to create a direct link between academia and officialdom. They may find a surprisingly warm welcome.

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