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Reactions to G.F. Berkeley's Reflections on the impact of research on educational policy and practice

Sam Rayner
Former Registrar, University of Queensland and President of the Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research

My reaction to George's paper, insofar as it is considering the impact of the work of departmental research staff, is, in his own words, that it is "unduly pessimistic" in his assessment of their contribution. He admits in a few words that a large department requires extensive specialist back-up, that he has doubtless been influenced by writings based on research and that he "relied heavily on data analysis and historical research in preparing Cabinet submissions"; but the effect of these admissions is greatly outweighed by his conclusion.

"It is difficult for me to put my finger on any particular research effort that directly influenced the development of a major policy or a significant decision about practice."
That view is reinforced by criticisms of the Survey of Special Education Support Services and the comment that cynics could correctly say that the impact of research on policy formulation is 'nil'.

My own view is that the prerequisite conditions for any substantial change in educational policies or practice differ little from those for other forms of social change. The first requirement is to create a sufficient level of discontent with the existing practice; this will involve destabilising the views of elderly administrators we grew up with, or may even have introduced, the practice. Support for the change will normally also be required from influential outside groups. When that stage has been reached, research findings can influence the choice of a new practice. A review of the major continuing tasks and roles of a well-organised and well-led departmental research branch may indicate how its unobtrusive influence would normally operate.

The distinguishing task of departmental research officers is to collate and analyse data with a view to providing insights that will assist administrators to perform their statutory responsibilities better. Although wide dissemination of thick reports may bring advantages from the greater reputation of the organisation or the individual, they may be ineffective means of changing departmental policies. Even if the report addresses a troublesome issue, a new policy is far more likely to result directly from a short memorandum to the key administrator than from a widely disseminated long report.

The wide responsibilities of the Minister and the Director-General mean that substantial resources must be devoted to the Library, not as a store of archival treasures but as working documents to be marked and indexed by those able to evaluate immediate or potential worth of the contents. Since an individual research officer could only with difficulty keep abreast of and index significant periodicals, reports and other ephemera in the psychological, comparative, organisational and curricular fields relevant to an education department, a senior administrator is unlikely to be able to do so. Senior administrators need to be supplied not merely with accession lists, summaries or photocopies, but with occasional papers on topics of emerging significance. In addition to informing the administrator, the paper might also suggest a pilot study before one of the professional critics starts to complain of the department's backwardness. More policy changes are likely to result from persuasive use of such comparative data than from years of controlled experiments.

Demographic analyses have been the stimuli for major policy changes over the past 40 years, if only in convincing Cabinet of the need for extra funds for teachers, schools and other special needs. At first they showed the inevitable consequence of rapid growth of births after World War II, at first on the primary schools, then on the secondary schools and then on the tertiary sector, The more recent net gains from migration have provided arguments for new funding claims; the macro studies, supplemented by date from schools, have drawn attention to the need for special provision for clusters of European migrants or for minimising problems arising from the concentration of Asian students in a few schools.

Although the testing movement has been unpopular in some quarters, measurement and evaluation specialists are essential in any education department. Although "norm" is for some among the worst of 4 letter words, an Education Minister who fails to monitor the standards being achieved in the system [and to take remedial action when necessary] will be faced with obviously justifiable criticism. The value of the periodical sample survey was well illustrated by the way in which this Institute's paper summarising research into reading standards in Grade 5 over the years 1933-1977 effectively offset the anecdotal criticisms submitted to the Parliamentary Committee chaired by Mr Ahern. The results of successive surveys may often not interest the administrator as they appear; but they provide useful bases for comparison when the recurring claims of failing standards appear. If standards in a subject have in fact fallen, knowledge of legitimate reasons [e.g. its time allotment was reduced to introduce new subjects] should be available.

Others are better able to document the contribution of the curricular and other specialists in creating the climate and setting the direction for changes in policy and practice. I should like to conclude with one illustration of the slow speed at which major educational change occurs, even when a very able and persistent senior officer is convinced of the need for change.

In 1948, Bill Wood as Acting Research Officer, began the search for an alternative to the State Scholarship Examination by applying an intelligence test in 28 schools. His concern at ill effects of the external examinations persisted over two decades and after innumerable memos and research reports, the external examination disappeared from the secondary schools in 1972 on the recommendation of the Radford committee on which he was the senior departmental officer. Data compiled for the Committee contributed to the outcome but more important was that the way had been prepared for such major change, one that 15 years later has not been made in any other State.

George's "unduly pessimistic" evaluation of the impact of the departmental research work seems to have resulted from unduly optimistic expectations, especially in respect of the speed with which major change normally occurs. The contribution of the departmental research branch should not be compared with the achievements of the Cooks, the Leichhardts or the Piagats with their dashes into the unknown or even with the surveyor-generals such as Mitchell or the young Cyril Burt in his L.C.C. days. The better analogy is with the later surveyors who showed the way for the farmer, the railroad or the pipeline builders and whose increasing precision facilitates a better developed Queensland.

Please cite as: Rayner, S. (1987). Reactions to G.F. Berkeley's Reflections on the impact of research on educational policy and practice. Queensland Researcher, 3(1), 19-22. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/rayner.html

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Created 17 Mar 2008. Last revision: 17 Feb 2013.
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