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 Capacity building resources

Educational Research and policy: epistemological perspectives


Aim of this resource
'What works'
Systematic reviews (web resources)
Generic issues
Large scale population studies
Case study
Stories and narratives
Action research
Philosophical enquiry
Re-imagining educational research



Preface by David Bridges

[Note: an extended version of this introduction will be published as a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education and subsequently as a book edited by David Bridges, Paul Smeyers and Richard Smith and published by Blackwell in 2008]

This set of resources is a response from a group of philosophers of education to an invitation from TLRP to contribute from work in theory of knowledge to current debate about what is or ought to be the relationship between educational research and educational policy.  The central question was: what sort of research can and should inform such policy?  Can we derive useful insight from small scale case studies and biography as well as large population studies, from practitioner research as well as academic institutional research, from philosophical and literary work as well as from empirical evidence? If so, how, more specifically do these forms of enquiry relate to and inform policy?

These questions arise, of course, in a particular context in which policy makers and educational researchers are increasingly vocal in their demands that educational policy and practice should be informed by high quality research.  In some renderings in the United States and the UK this has been translated into the language of ‘evidence – based’ policy and practice and in both countries this in turn has led to ‘systematic reviews’ of educational research aimed at sifting what is regarded as research which can reliably inform us ‘what works’ from that which is less deserving of attention. In the United States following the re-authorisation in 2001 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (‘No Child Left Behind’) only such research as compares with the medical double blind randomised controlled trials has been seen in government circles to be deserving of attention in terms of policy formation. (See What Works Clearing House at ) Considerably less restrictively the ‘systematic reviews’ favoured by UK government and carried out under the auspices of the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information Coordinating Centre (EPPI Centre: ) at the London Institute of Education have nevertheless ‘systematically’ excluded whole swathes of educational research from its consideration.  These exclusions were especially significant in terms of research which indicated what policy should be as distinct from how a particular determined policy might be implemented or delivered, but put beyond the frame of consideration, for example, much research based on individual case studies or narratives. However, as Whitty pointed out in his Presidential address to the 2005 BERA conference:

‘Even research that is centrally concerned with improving practice and supporting teachers … needs to be more diverse in its nature than the rhetoric of ‘what works’ sometimes seems to imply. Research defined too narrowly would actually be very limited as an evidence base for a teacher profession that is facing the huge challenges of a rapidly changing world, where what works today may not work tomorrow. Some research, therefore, needs to ask different sorts of questions, including why something works and, equally important, why it works in some contexts and not in others. And anyway, the professional literacy of teachers surely involves more than purely instrumental knowledge.  It is therefore appropriate that a research based profession should be informed by research that questions prevailing assumptions – and considers such questions as whether an activity is a worthwhile endeavour in the first place and what constitutes socially-just schooling’ (published in Whitty 2006:162).

This set of papers begins with ‘The importance of being thorough: on systematic accumulation of “what works” in educational research’ by Richard Pring and Alis Oancea (University of Oxford) which describes and examines the context in which recent discussions about evidenced based policy have emerged and some of the problems they raise.

‘The epistemological bases of educational research and policy’ by David Bridges and Michael Watts (Von Hugel Institute, Cambridge) consider whether there are any general principles one can advance as to what sort of evidence can and should inform educational policy.

‘On the epistemological basis of large scale population studies and their use’ by Paul Smeyers (University of Ghent and Leuven) considers the ways in which large population studies might inform policy and provides particular insight into the interpretation of causality in such research. We wanted to include in the suite of discussions at least one example of quantitative research methods, because these are often assumed to be relatively unproblematic as evidence which can inform policy, but, as Smeyers demonstrates, the derivation of policy from such evidence and the inferences involved have their own complexities.

We then move to two discussions of qualitative research methods focusing on individual or a small number of cases.  John Elliott and Dominic Lukes (University of East Anglia) discuss the ways in which case study can inform policy in ‘The conduct of educational case study: issues of verification and utilization with particular reference to policy’, while Morwenna Griffiths and Gale McLeod (University of Edinburgh) consider the particular issues relating to ‘Stories and personal narratives’.

Some of the same issues are raised in connection with practitioner and action research, which is the focus of a paper by Lorraine Foreman Peck and Jane Murray (University of Northampton), ‘Action research and policy: epistemological considerations’.

It would be part of our contention that policy must inescapably be informed by philosophical considerations – and the paper written by James Conroy, Penny Enslin and Bob White (University of Glasgow) explores this relationship in more detail in Philosophical enquiry as a basis for educational policy’.

Finally, we wanted to open the debate to consideration of some even more difficult bedfellows to educational policy – and this is what Richard Smith (University of Durham) contributes in his paper ‘Proteus rising: re-imagining educational research’ which considers the place of ‘non-modernist’ enquiry and ‘the romantic turn’ in the educational policy arena.

The authors have been working collaboratively for twelve months.  They started with a two day seminar in the autumn of 2006 at which they presented outlines of possible papers and kicked these around as a group.  Authors then re-worked their plans in the light of this discussion and proceeded with the writing.  A nucleus of the group presented their current thinking at the annual conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain in April 2007.  The group then circulated their first drafts for detailed critical scrutiny at a two day seminar in Cambridge in June 2007.  This was also attended by two colleagues from outside the specialist field: Professor Lesley Saunders, Research Policy Advisor for the General Teaching Council (who has contributed a Preface to the collection) and Professor Alan Brown, Associate Director of TLRP. The papers were then further re-worked for presentation at the annual conferences of the British and European Educational Research Associations in September 2007 where they benefited from joint sessions between the philosophy of education and the Policy and Politics special interest groups. 

Two versions of each of the papers which have emerged from this process will be publicly available.  This web-site will hold a shorter version running to about 1000 words.  A longer version of each paper (of the order of 8,000 to 10,000 words each) will be published by Blackwells as a supplementary volume to the Journal of Philosophy of Education edited by David Bridges, Paul Smeyers and Richard Smith in 2008 and subsequently as a book under the title: ‘Evidence based educational policy’: What evidence? What basis? Whose policy?

The papers issue from debate among the contributors and the wider educational research and policy community and will, hopefully, contribute to the on-going conversations. To this end they do not necessarily assume a detailed knowledge of the philosophical literature, but are written in a way which will, we hope, reach out to colleagues in the wider educational policy and research communities and not just philosophers of education.


Whitty, G. (2006) Education(al) research and education policy making: is conflict inevitable?, in: British Educational Research Journal, 32, 2, pp. 159-76


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