This book review has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech – Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick and incoming CEO of London Higher. Diana previously served as Policy Adviser to the last three Ministers of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, and was HEPI’s first Director of Policy and Advocacy.
Let’s face it: a book entitled Getting Evidence into Education: Evaluating the Routes to Policy and Practice (edited by Stephen Gorard, Routledge, April 2020, ISBN: 9780367258832) was always going to be of interest to government policy wonks like me.
The title alone is music to the ears of those who are keen to steer policymakers away from making decisions based on unfounded ideology or political pressure and, instead, advocate for policy built on robust data or convincing case studies of what works and what does not.
What makes this book even more intriguing, however, is the fact it was released in April 2020 in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.
When the world went into lockdown and life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt in the spring, there is no doubt that policymakers in all sectors and industries would have relished the ability to draw on a bank of good evidence to support the speedy policy decisions that needed to be made.
This was nowhere more true than in UK education which, in an unprecedented effort to stem the spread of the virus, saw in-person teaching suspended for all but the children of keyworkers, the cancellation of milestone assessments including GCSEs and A-Levels and a large-scale shift to online working in schools, colleges and universities.
Of course, none of the contributors to this volume or its editor, Stephen Gorard, would have known that their work would be published in such tumultuous times. But the frequent references to lessons learned from the public healthcare sector could not be more timely – not least the pertinent reminder on the very last page of the book that, although it has been proven that the practice of regular hand-washing can help to save lives, it can still be widely ignored by the general population (or what the book calls policy ‘users’).
Given the recent resurgence in coronavirus cases across the UK and the sense some people seem to have given up on following basic, evidence-based advice, the book needs no better caveat that even the most evidence-led policies are ultimately reliant on policymakers gaining public trust in their judgements and on people acting responsibly.
In many ways, then, Getting Evidence into Education is a book ahead of its time. It highlights the difficulties of collecting good evidence to shape policy. It leaves us under no illusion that there is a quick fix for bringing this evidence into use. Yet, it nevertheless succeeds in persuading readers that to give up on gathering good evidence now would be to leave our education sector exposed and ill-equipped to tackle future challenges – just as we saw earlier this year when the pandemic turned all our worlds upside down.
The book itself appeals to educationalists in the broadest sense, with the bulk of contributions concentrating on examples of getting evidence into schools. That said, the lessons learned from these chapters can be applied widely across the entire education system, so there is still plenty for higher education specialists to get their teeth into.
Of particular interest to me was Chapter 9, detailing a longitudinal study conducted in Brazil, simply because it is a part of the world we rarely hear about in education discussions here in the UK and it made me appreciate just how influential the mainstream media is in countries like ours when it comes to guiding educational debates – though it would be wrong to assume it always does so helpfully.
Wearing my current University of Warwick hat, I was pleased to see Warwick academic, Rebecca Morris, contribute to a chapter exposing the dual role of educational leaders as both ‘consumer’ and ‘curators’ of evidence – responsible for not only implementing the evidence they pick up, but also producing it by participating in projects and studies. I also note the University is credited in the book with being the founding place of the Research Schools Network (discussed in Chapter 5), established as means of understanding the intricacies of integrating research evidence into the heart of teaching and learning.
For those interested in widening participation, there is a chapter looking at the use of evidence from research on contextualised admissions to Scottish universities, co-authored by Vikki Boliver – a name which will be familiar to many readers of this blog from her frequent contributions to higher education debates and, of course, her co-authored piece in HEPI’s 2017 report, ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access?’, published in conjunction with Brightside.
The similarities with HEPI reports stop there though. In terms of style, Gorard’s volume is typically academic, so don’t expect a leisurely read. This is somewhat unfortunate, given that Beng Huat See recognises in her chapter that some of the key reasons we fail to get evidence into education policy are that ‘school leaders and teachers generally do not have the time to engage with academic literature’ and, even if they have the time, ‘academic research papers are often not written in a way that is easily accessible to practitioners’ (Chapter 7).
In this respect, I cannot help but feel the book may have missed a trick by not recognising that policymakers, too, suffer from similar constraints and are not necessarily going to be drawn to jargon-filled chapter titles, such as that talking about ‘distributed leadership [as] an effective approach for mobilising research-informed innovation across professional learning networks’ (Chapter 13), which I had to read just to work out what it means!
If you can get past the book’s sometimes dry nature, however, there are plenty suggestions of what kind of evidence can be collected to inform education policy, how this evidence can be implemented and what can be done to convince others of its benefits.
For the higher education sector, in particular, Gorard acknowledges in his concluding chapter that improvements have been made in terms of increased capacity building in universities to improve knowledge transfer, increased spending on research translation and the provision of incentives for academics to engage in public-facing work. Yet, he also reminds us of the barriers the sector is still to overcome – not least the ‘lack of timeliness in the research process’, which he explains can cause evidence simply to be ignored if there is a ‘mismatch in the timelines of the users and producers of research’. And I should know better than anyone that this risk is heightened with every change of administration or government minister!
In the current climate of uncertainty we’re living in, Gorard’s volume serves as a call to arms to educationalists everywhere to make sure we are not missing opportunities to gather evidence that could make for better policy in the future. And with questions looming large about how we are going to handle next year’s admissions timetable and summer examinations process, among others, this book contains lessons the sector can ill afford to ignore.
Diana Beech takes over as the new Chief Executive of London Higher next week.