home  news  search  vre  contact  sitemap
 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


Generic Issues

By David Bridges, Von Hugel Institute, St Edmund's College Cambridge and University of East Anglia and Michael Watts, Von Hugel Institute, St Edmund's College Cambridge

[The full version of this paper will be published in 2008 in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education edited by David Bridges, Paul Smeyers and Richard Smith and subsequently in book form by Blackwell]

1. Locating the question

(i) The TRP project is primarily concerned to examine the extent to which and ways in which policy may be derived from particular forms of research (large population studies, case studies, action research etc). Can one answer in more generic terms the question of what sort of knowledge ought to inform policy?

(ii) To what extent can one separate epistemological considerations about what the grounds for policy should be from empirical considerations about what the grounds for policy are?

Hammersley suggest that we can helpfully distinguish: ‘factual questions about the roles that research has actually played, theoretical questions about the roles which it can play, and value questions about the roles that it ought to play' (Hammersley 2002: 1)

(iii) What is the nature of the ‘ought' here?

We do not regard these last questions as simply ‘value' questions: they are at least in part epistemological ones about the kind of knowledge and understanding that certain kinds of questions logically and appropriately require. The link between epistemology and ethics is explored in a tradition of philosophical writing on the ethics of belief. C.f. William Clifford's essay on ‘The Ethics of Belief'

‘Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours, not for ourselves, but for humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action.' (Clifford 1879 pp 182-3 but see also James 1937 and McCarthy 1986).

These considerations then lead us to ask….

2. What constitute appropriate grounds for the formation of policy?

Can we recognise them? Can we state them?

It can be helpful to consider how we might respond to some specific examples. Should policy makers (or anyone else) base policy on any of the following? If not, why not?

  • a. The fact that a business in which the policy maker had a significant interest would make a killing if this policy was introduced
  • b. The fact that the policy maker had picked up a rumour about some flaw in the system
  • c. The fact that the policy maker's child had come home from school upset at what appeared to be some manifestation of current policy
  • d. The fact that some other country had introduced this policy
  • e. The fact that some friends in his/her pub or club had urged this policy direction
  • f. The fact that his/ her boss had urged him/her to come up with something within 24 hours to grab the newspaper headlines


  • g. Support for the policy would pretty well guarantee that the member (of parliament or the County Council) would lose his/her seat at the next election
  • h. Evidence from focus groups and opinion polls suggests that this policy would win a lot of popular support
  • i. The policy would enhance the Minister's standing in contention for the party leadership

Some of these examples seem to us to provoke objections on ethical grounds (eg a); some might invite further enquiry, but be quite inadequate alone (eg b,c,d); some seem to indicate inadequate or careless consideration (eg e,f); the last three take us into questions about the role of political figures in a democratic polity and the balance between leadership and responsiveness. What is significant for our purposes is that in so far as we can discuss and debate these issues intelligibly we are employing a mix of ethical and epistemological considerations to determine what sort of information ought to inform policy.

3. What is ‘policy'?

‘Policy research can be done within institutions or classrooms, as well as within local education authorities or government departments' (Ozga 2000:2).

policy can be conceived of as a relatively systematic and sustained set of intentions or ‘statements of prescriptive intent' as Kogan defined it (Kogan 1975: 55).

‘a detailed prescription for action aimed at the preservation or alteration of educational institutions or practices' (McLaughlin 2000 p.442).

In this sense policy is intimately associated with human agency, albeit that it may be the agency of human beings operating collectively, for example as a political party, a local authority, a charitable organisation or a school community. Like other forms of human intentionality it is typically revealed in what people say and in what they do; and, as in other forms of human agency, there is not uncommonly a gap between the intentions revealed by what people say and those revealed by what they do.

4. The processes of policy making

In all cases policy formulation is essentially a matter of deciding what ought to be done. However one goes about such a decision, whatever the preferred sequence, the epistemological requirements are I suggest constant, even if there will be inevitable debate about what these requirements are. The methods of decision making follow from the epistemological requirements of the decision, not the other way round. … we can focus on the epistemological requirements – on the components of policy decisions themselves -- before engaging in consideration of decision making processes.

5. The components of policy decisions: what does the Minister need to know?

Suppose, for example, a Minister received a research report which indicated persuasively that children learned a foreign language much more effectively through having intense programmes outside the normal school timetable than through the traditional extended time-tabled course. Suppose too that systematic research reviews leant support to this conclusion.

Is this a sufficient basis for it to become government policy to shift the teaching of languages into this sort of delivery system? What else would he or she need to know? We suggest that at least the following considerations would also need to be taken into account:

  • What would be the additional cost of such a change – and what analysis might be made of the cost/benefit relationship? Are there less complicated ways of achieving a similar or better cost to benefit ratio?
  • How well equipped are teachers to re-orientate themselves to this kind of approach? What resistance might there be from teachers – and what political cost involved in taking on such resistance?
  • What would be the teacher training requirements for such a change? What would these cost and how quickly could they be put in place?
  • What are the plant utilisation implications of such a change? And the costs associated with these?
  • What are the implications for parents – and especially for parents at work? How acceptable would such a change be to parents? What might be the political cost and benefit of carrying forward such a change?
  • Are languages the only subject which might benefit from this approach? If not, then what are the arguments for treating languages in this way and not other subjects?
  • The research compares two alternatives – are there other options which ought to be considered?

If this is right, then it indicates that there is, of course, much more legitimately and necessarily involved in policy making than is usually encompassed in research commissions. These typically address only a limited part of the information needed for a properly informed decision, so it is hardly going to be surprising if there is not a straightforward translation of research into policy. Either research commissions have to be much more broadly defined or both parties to such commissions should not have unrealistic expectations of what will issue from the research.

6. The normative basis of research and policy

‘Education … has some particular characteristics that affect the role that research can play. It is a value laden activity, inextricably connected to our broader aspirations for society' (Levin 2004:2)

‘Education is at least partly about the overall aims that society has for itself and how these aims are realised in practice. It cannot, therefore, be a neutral technical exercise, but is invariably a deeply ethical, political and cultural one bound up with ideas about the good society and how life can be worthwhile' (Winch and Gingell 2004: Preface).

Kogan writes of policy as a matter of ‘the authoritative allocation of values' (Kogan 1975:55)

‘policies are the operational statements of values' (Ball 1990: 3).

Educational policy is inescapably normative. Such normativity cannot just be located in the ends so that the means to these ends are seen as purely technical matters. Educational norms and principles imbue every aspect of our work – in the language we use, in the way teachers and pupils inter-relate, in the organisation of the classroom, in the iconography of the school walls, in the schools engagement with parents and the local community etc etc. So ….

7. How can and should researchers engage with the normative dimensions of policy?

(i) Pretend they aren't there?

Present poicy decisions as if they were purely pragmatic. ‘One of the ostensible virtues of evidence-based education is that it is free of ideology, of pre-determined positions' (Saunders 2004: 3) Saunders goes on to suggest that in the ‘what works' discourse ‘value positions disappear from sight as if by sleight of hand' (ibid: 8).

(ii) Research them

  • historical analysis (how have these evolved over the years?)
  • political analysis (what political interests do they serve? How are they maintained?)
  • discourse analysis (what is revealed about the underlying normative framework through an analysis of the language employed?)
  • phenomenological enquiry (how are they experienced by those whom they affect?)
  • ethnographic enquiry (what can be revealed about these values by participants of various kinds in the communities in which they are cultivated, by the rituals, symbols, behaviours and practices of these communities?)

(iii) Question them or critique them

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' (Whitty 2006: 162).

(iv) Get politically engaged on the side of justice through research

educational policy research is ‘an informed, independent contestation of policy by a research community of teachers and academics who have together developed capacities that allow them to speak with authority against a misguided, mistaken and unjust educational policy' (Ozga 2000: 1 and see also Griffiths 1998 in her significantly entitled ‘Educational research for social justice' Tierney 1994 and Gitlin and Russell 1994 ).

(v) Treat with caution – do not cross the line

Munn explained that ‘where research spills over into advocacy an important boundary has been crossed' and she warned against researchers ‘arguing for the desirable' (Munn 2005: 24).

(vi) Answer them

as Davis points out, once one shifts the focus of one's enquiry from ‘methods that work' to ‘morally or educationally defensible principles' then ‘these principles would not appeal to empirical evidence. They would rely instead on the reasoning peculiar to ethics, politics and educational philosophy' (Davis 1999: 400).

8. How can one deal directly – but in a ‘researcherly' manner – with the normative questions which underpin policy?

Speaking about the way in which the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education is tackling these expressly normative questions, Pring describes a process which is rooted in widespread opinion but which then exposes that opinion to a process of critique:

‘In pursuing, therefore, an understanding of the overall aim of education in order to shape the review, the Review has solicited judgements, views or considered opinions very widely. The quality of those views does not matter. If they exist and are shaping practice then they deserve serious consideration….The starting point (those judgements, views or opinions from many sources) is not what matters, but the process of criticism through which one progresses from those starting points. Such views have to be clearly articulated, opened to critical scrutiny, redrafted in the light of such criticism and challenged by evidence…' (Pring 2006: 10).

9. What form might such critique take (in epistemological terms)?

•  one might ask: are the normative principles underlying any particular policy actually rendered in explicit or at least intelligible form? Part of White's critique of the UK national curriculum, for example, has been directed against its failure to explain the educational values or

•  aims from which it is derived (White 2007)one might ask: are they in any sense justified? Is there a coherent rationale for them, which perhaps links them to a view of human nature, of societal good or of human flourishing. Again White's Impact pamphlet (one of a series aimed precisely at demonstrating the contribution which philosophy can make to educational policy) is an illustration of the way in which a rationale can be developed which makes a reasoned connection between certain fundamental values and educational policy even if it cannot in the end demonstrate conclusively why one should subscribe to those values.

•  one can ask whether the normative principles which are acknowledged are internally consistent and coherent; what is the nature of any conflicts between these principles and how conflicts between different desiderata are or can be resolved.

•  one can ask whether the acknowledged normative principles are consistent with the actions which are recommended or those taken under the same policy framework.

There will be a fuller discussion of the contribution of philosophy to educational policy in the paper by Conroy, Enslin and White in this set of materials.


[We have included references for the full text of this paper in case these are helpful to others working in this field]

Ball, S. (1990) Politics and policy making in education , London , Routledge.

Blunkett,D. (2000) Influence or irrelevance? Can social science improve government? Presentation at ESRC seminar, February. London :DfES.

Bridges, D. (2003) ‘Fiction written under oath? Essays in philosophy and educational research , Dordrecht and London , Kluwer.

British Educational Research Association (2002) Education policy and research across the UK : a report of a BERA Colloquium held at University of Birmingham , 7 th and 8 th November, Nottingham , BERA.

Clifford W (1879) ‘The ethics of belief' in Lectures and Essays Vol 2, Macmillan, London

Coalition for Evidence Based Policy (2002) Bringing evidence driven progress to education: Report for the US Department of Education , November 2002,

Commission on the Social Sciences (2003) Great expectations: the Social Sciences in Britain . Chaired by David Rhind. Available at

Davis ,A.(1999) ‘Prescribing teaching methods' Journal of Philosophy of Education , 33:3, pp 387-402

Edwards,A., Sebba, J. and Rickinson, M.(2006) Working with users: some implications for educational research (Paper submitted for BERJ special issue on TLRP).

Fielding, M. (2000) Educational policy and the challenge of living philosophy, Journal of Educational Policy, 15,4, pp 377-381.

Finch, R. (1986) Research and policy: the uses of qualitative methods on educational and social research , Lewes, Falmer Press.

Furlong,J. and White P (2001) Educational research capacity in Wales : a review , Cardiff , Cardiff University School of Social Sciences.

Gitlin, A. and Russell, R. (1994) ‘Alternative methodologies and the research context' in A. Gitlin (ed) Power and method: political activism and educational research , New York , Routledge.

Griffiths . M. (1998) Educational research for social justice: getting off the fence , Buckingham, Open University Press

Hammersley, M. (2002) Educational research, policy making and practice , London , Paul Chapman.

Hargreaves, D. (1996) Teaching as a research based profession: possibilities and prospects , London , Teacher Training Agency.

Hargreaves, D. (1997) In defence of evidence based teaching, British Educational Research Journal, 23:4 pp 405-419.

Hillage, J., Pearson,R., Anderson ,A. and Tamkin,P. (1998) Excellence in research on schools , London : DfEE

James, W. (1937) The will to believe and other essays , London , Longman Green.

Kogan,M. (1975) Educational policy making , London , Allen and Unwin.

Levin,B. (2004) Making research matter more, Education Policy Analysis Archives , 12:56, pp 1-20.

Lindblom, C. (1959) The science of muddling through, Public Administration Quarterly , XIX: pp 79-88.

Lindblom, C. (1968) The policy making process , Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall.

Lindblom, C. (1979) Still muddling, not yet through, Public Administration Review , 39: pp 517-526.

McCarthy G.D. (1986) The ethics of belief debate , Atlanta , Georgia , Scholar Press

McGaw,B., Boud,D., Poole ,M., Warry,S. and McKechnie,P. (1992) Educational research in Australia : Report of the review panel of research in education , Canberra , Australian Government Publishing Service

McLaughlin, T.H. (1999) ‘A response to Professor Bridges' in ed D.Carr Values in the curriculum , Aberdeen , Gordon Cook Foundation.

McLaughlin, T.H. (2000) ‘Philosophy and educational policy: possibilities, tensions and tasks', in: Journal of Educational Policy , 15:4, pp 441-457

Morrison, K. (2001) ‘Randomised controlled trials for evidence-based education: some problems in judging ‘what works', Evaluation and Research in Education , 15:2, pp 69-83.

Munn, P. (2005) Researching policy and policy research, Scottish Educational Review , 37:1pp 17- 28.

Ozga, J. (2000) Policy research in educational settings: contested terrain , Buckingham, Open University Press.

Pratt, J. (1999) ‘Testing policy' in Swann,J. and Pratt, J. Improving education: Realist approaches to method and research , London , Cassell.

Pratt, J. (2000) ‘Research and policy: a realist approach', Prospero , Vol 6 No 3 & 4, pp139-149.

Pring, R. (2006) Reclaiming philosophy for educational research: ‘Educational Review' Annual Lecture 11 th October 2006 , Birmingham (unpublished mimeo)

Prost,A. (2001) Pour un programme stratégique de recherche en éducation , Paris , Ministère de l'Education Nationale

Prunty,J. (1985) ‘Signposts for a critical educational policy analysis' Australian Journal of Education , 29:2, pp 133-140.

Saunders, L. (2004) Grounding the democratic imagination: developing the relationship between research and policy in education : Professorial Lecture at the Institute of Education, University of London, 24 March 2004, London, Institute of Education, University of London.

Simon, H.A (1960) The new science of management decision , Englewood Cliffs,NJ, Prentice Hall.

Stewart Howe, W. (1986) Corporate strategy , Basingstoke , MacMillan

Tierney, W.G. (1994) ‘On method and hope' in A. Gitlin (ed) Power and method: political activism and educational research , New York , Routledge.

Tooley, J. and Darby,D. (1998) Education research: a critique – a survey of published educational research , London : OFSTED.

White, J. (2007) What schools are for and why , Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain.

Whitty, G. (2002) Making sense of educational policy , London , Paul Chapman.

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

Winch, C. & Gingell J. (2006) Philosophy and educational policy: a critical introduction , London , Routledge.



Creative Commons License TLRP Resources for Research in Education by Teaching and Learning Research Programme is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License




homepage ESRC