Put evidence at the heart of education decision-making, says joint British Academy and Royal Society report

16 October 2018

The UK government spends billions on education each year, but has a dwindling supply of evidence-based researchers to help them make crucial decisions on how to best use this funding, says a report on the state of educational research in the UK.

The British Academy and the Royal Society warn that the capacity and funding for educational research is falling, with a 10% drop in the number of Education postgraduate research students between 2011/12 and 2016/17, and funding from UK government departments and research councils down 25% between 2006 and 2014/15.

The academies recognise that researchers, teachers and policymakers have different priorities and constraints that affect how they produce and use evidence. But, the report argues, these stakeholders must better work together to identify and tackle the big strategic questions in education. More must be done to generate and use the best available evidence to help children reach their full potential.

The report makes a series of recommendations to ensure future education policies benefit from rigorous evidence, including creating a new independent body and making teaching a research-literate profession.

Create an independent office

To ensure educators can access the evidence that they need, the British Academy and Royal Society recommend creating an independent Office for Educational Research to bring together devolved governments, teachers, researchers and research councils. It would identify gaps in the research base and provide government with high-quality evidence to support their decision-making process. The new independent body would also address stark regional disparities; educational research capacity is concentrated in London and the South East, but there is a “severe lack” in other parts of the UK, such as Wales and the North West of England.

Secure the pipeline of researchers

The UK has an ageing population of educational researchers. More than half of researchers are above the age of 50, often teachers with part-time studentships. The report urges funders and universities to be flexible in supporting research students and those working on interdisciplinary educational research, or risk seeing a continually dwindling supply of professionals in the field.

Make teaching a research-literate profession

Teachers make daily decisions about how best to teach while taking into account emotional, behavioural and social factors that impact their pupils’ ability and motivation to learn. Being research-informed gives teachers the capacity and capability to innovate and overcome barriers in students’ progression and attainment.

The report advises that teachers need more support and time to incorporate evidence into their teaching to raise the academic attainment and positive learning experiences of their students. It calls for senior leaders to be able to free up time for teachers to pursue professional development activities. This will be critical to the expectation that teachers should be informed by and engaged in research.

Sir Alan Wilson FBA FRS, The Turing Institute, and chair of the Working Group, said:

“We would not make decisions on funding medical research without evidence on what works and what does not. It should be no different for the education of our young people.

“We know that education policies work better when they are evidenced based, but at the moment researchers, practitioners and policymakers do not have shared priorities for research, although there are areas of common interest.

“Education policy can be influenced by ideology and political preference, without necessarily taking account of the most rigorous or most complete research.

“That’s why we are recommending a new Office for Educational Research to join up policymakers, academics, teachers and the government to ensure that everyone in the sector can benefit from evidence.”

Professor Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, said:

“Every time a teacher steps into a classroom they’re shaping the lives of young people. The impact they have is huge and lasting. That’s why every teacher and everyone working in the teaching profession should have access to the tools and knowledge to work in the most informed way possible. One which is borne out of peer review and collegiality.

“At the Chartered College we know teachers are trying to do this, but with the pressures they face it is far from easy. Teachers must be given the opportunity to constantly develop their learning from the second they enter a classroom. We want to create a culture of lifelong learning, support and celebration with the profession working together. A culture with evidence at its heart which empowers teachers to deliver the best possible education to benefit their pupils and wider society.”