The value of educational research by Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke

International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies

ISSN: 2046-8253

Article publication date: 31 August 2012



Clarke, R.H.C. (2012), "The value of educational research by Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol. 1 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The value of educational research by Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke

The value of educational research by Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke

Article Type: Discussion From: International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Volume 1, Issue 3.


At a time of rapid and significant change in societies across the world the case for research into educational methods, achievements and outcomes is unanswerable. Publication in a respected international journal can help disseminate the outcomes of such research and so raise educational standards.

However, there is no doubt that the mutual respect of policy makers and researchers is not always as great as it should be. This article seeks to understand why, and to propose some remedies.

The importance of educational success

At a time of increased global competition between countries, corporations and individuals the importance of educational outcomes could not be greater.

As educational research has demonstrated, educational capacity and achievement is an essential requirement for economic and social success in societies throughout the world. There is nothing at all new in this observation. Door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen and institutions like the miners’ libraries flourished because ordinary people knew that a good education provided the means to future achievement.

Today education ministries throughout the world look at measures like the PISA scores and take them as a basis for re-evaluating their own national approaches.

In almost all countries, educational policies are motivated by both the desire for social mobility and a search for social justice.

Social mobility is the process through which individuals from all strata of society can reasonably hope to reach the highest places of influence and leadership, whether in business, the professions, social institutions or political and public leadership.

Broadly speaking the greater social mobility, the more likely are societies to be stable and economically successful. The stronger and more pervasive the system of public education the greater will be social mobility.

Public education is similarly a central lever in the creation of socially just societies, in which every individual feels that they have been able to fulfil their potential and attain a way of life which benefits both themselves and the wider society.

The popular understanding of these points is the reason why education has become such a significant rallying cry for politicians throughout the world. Tony Blair's “education, education, education” in 1997 in the UK is just one example of a host of politicians who have placed higher standards for education at the core of their political appeal.

The need for educational research

But of course recognition of the need for educational success is only part of the battle, and a part that has generally been won.

Far more difficult, and in many ways more significant, is answering the question, “How do we achieve educational success?” and here is the importance of educational research.

Some have argued that all you need for success is money and resources. But the truth is that more resources are at best a necessary and not a sufficient condition for improving educational outcomes.

Extra resources may not even be necessary to improve educational outcomes. At every level of provision of resources for education, improved outcomes can be achieved. If extra resources are available, decisions have to be taken as to the best use of those resources: which levels of education to focus upon, whether to spend on more teachers, better-trained teachers or better equipment and facilities.

Educational decision takers at all levels and in all countries are wrestling with these issues every day, and as they do so dealing with the strong-vested interests which cry out that theirs will be the most productive place to spend.

Research in education should be an important part of providing the answer to these difficult questions.

A simple list of the types of question which need answering illustrates the potential for properly focused educational research.

Straightforward pedagogy raises a useful set of starters. Does class size make any difference at all, if so in what way? Can individual tutoring improve results, inside or outside school? Do innovations like a focus at primary level upon literacy and numeracy (e.g. through dedicated “hours”) improve outcomes? What is the best way to teach English and reading, maths and science? What is the role of parents? Did the trade union bumper sticker, “If you can read this thank a teacher”, reflect a deep truth or should the parents’ role be given greater respect?

And how can different technologies, PCs, laptops, electronic interactive whiteboards, mobile phones, be used to improve educational results? Is the decision of the Texas Board of Education to focus on teaching science through e-learning (possibly reducing spending on resources by over half) wise or foolish?

There is plenty of room for “gut feeling” on questions such as these, which is no doubt why a current UK education minister is setting long division tests for every academic he meets. But what is really needed is judgements based on real research and understanding.

The same is true for the curriculum. The National Curriculum in the UK is only 25 years old and has already gone through major changes, swerving between more and less prescriptive central direction. Qualifications like “A” levels, the International Baccalaureate and Diplomas move in and out of fashion, as do subjects like Latin, geography and modern foreign languages. And all the time the relationship between education and work remains a problematic and contested area as employers complain that people coming out of school aren’t properly prepared and educationists doubt the value of teaching work skills.

Assessment provokes polemic and conflict. Some argue that exams have been “dumbed down” and coursework is not an appropriate method of assessment. Others say that technology could be used to help assess far more effectively. There is perpetual confusion about the purpose of testing educational outcomes and whose benefit it serves, and again the relationship between general and vocational testing is unclear.

And in most countries in the world, the burning question is how to improve the quality of teaching. There is no consensus about the best methods of initial training or the best form of continuous professional development. There is not even agreement about whether responsibility lies with the school, the local authority or the teacher themselves. The introduction of less-qualified “teaching assistants” has provoked controversy and even confrontation.

The aspiration of the International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies to stimulate the growth of a database of lesson studies on topics that teachers find particularly difficult to teach is a good example of the kind of practical resource which can help to drive up teaching standards.

And finally governments across the world are uncertain about the best way of driving improvements in performance. What is the best form of accountability? What is the place of inspection regimes like Ofsted, of reporting through “league tables” or similar methods?

And what is the best way to organise schools? Does selection, at 11, 14 or 16 have a role? Do different types of school, like “Academies”, “Specialist Schools”, “Free schools”? What, if any, is the role of the Local Education Authority? Should classes be streamed by ability? Should the school day be longer – or shorter? Should the school year be differently organised, with school for more weeks of the year? Or organised in a different way? How can leadership be improved and head teachers be made more effective?

Or is this all too optimistic? Are educational outcomes predetermined by economic and class origins? Have those teachers who argue that in some poor socio-economic areas, “You can’t do anything with these kids”, got a fair point? Or not?

So this long list of questions, and more, offer the challenge for educational researchers. There's no doubt that, across the world, policy makers are actively looking for answers to questions like these.

Of course the answers will vary from country to country, society to society. But in principle it seems that there ought to be reasonable objective answers to questions such as these, based on high-quality research analysis.

However in practice there don’t seem to be many useful answers to these kinds of questions.

It often seems, fairly or unfairly, that educational research appears to be addressing minor or introverted research interests, rather than offering answers to the questions which preoccupy policy makers.

Many organisations are ready to commission research to try and answer the types of question set out above. These include governments, global charities (such as Gates), non-governmental organisations (such as the World Bank, African Development Bank and others), professional associations, employers and of course special interest groups (e.g. looking at special educational needs).

But to do so, they need to feel that the research will be worthwhile, and of high quality.

Helping research to influence policy decisions

The often rapid timescale of political decision taking can significantly limit the extent to which research can inform policy and practical decision taking.

The influence of research will in any case depend on the timescale on which it is working and the extent to which it can provide soundly based answers to questions such as those set out above. Researchers also need to be ready to engage in the types of controversy and polemic which characterise a field of policy in which public interest is so strong.

It is often easier for research to influence the approach of policy makers than to respond to agendas, often short term, set by policy makers.

My conclusion is that educational researchers should seize the initiative by conducting research which addresses the kinds of questions which are of concern to policy makers. Examples have been given earlier in this article, but the overall approach of educational research needs to be driven by a desire to understand the best ways to improve educational outcomes for people throughout the world who are seeking to improve the quality of education.

The best way to do this is to enhance the quality of dialogue between the educational research and policy-making communities. The research community should initiate discussion with practitioners around the “future of education” and “educational improvement” agenda, accepting that things can be changed and improved.

Education researchers need to understand the agenda of policy makers in countries throughout the world and to offer their services to help analyse what needs to be done and how best progress can be achieved. The International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies can play its full part in that process.

About the author

Rt. Hon. Charles ClarkeRead mathematics and economics at Kings College Cambridge. After election to Parliament as Labour MP for Norwich South in May 1997 he was appointed to the Treasury Select Committee. In July 1998 he joined the government as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for School Standards and then Minister of State at the Home Office. In 2001 he joined the Cabinet as Labour Party Chair and Minister without Portfolio and then served as Secretary of State for Education and Skills and then Home Secretary. He left the Home Office in 2006 and was defeated in the 2010 General Election. He is now Visiting Professor in Politics at the University of East Anglia. Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke can be contacted at:

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