Education has much to learn: how the relationships between research, policy and practice need to change in light of COVID-19

The Director of the ESRC’s forthcoming Education Research Programme offers a personal view of how education researchers in England have grappled with the many challenges raised by the pandemic – and considers their interactions with decision-makers in both policy and practice

Gemma Moss

One of the most interesting outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the debate (stimulated in the medical field by advice on mask-wearing) about whether, and under what conditions, the standards enshrined in evidence-based practice (EBP) really are the best or only warrant for action.

Professor Trish Greenhalgh has been at the forefront of these discussions. Most recently, in a wide-ranging review of the ways in which the medical community determines what weight to give evidence from Randomised Controlled Trials in EBP, she argued that prevailing mental models both ‘powerfully shape’ the questions that science and policy address, and in the process can also limit thinking in potentially harmful ways. She linked this discussion to the time it took the medical and policy communities to understand that COVID-19 spreads through airborne transmission, not contact and droplets as was first thought.

To date, there have been no similar discussions in the education field over the interactions between research and policy during the pandemic, and whether prevailing models of how they can best work together might need to be adjusted. In my view, this is a missed opportunity.

What role should research play in shaping policy and practice?

This blog is intended to spur the education community as a whole – whether researchers, policymakers or practitioners – to think again about the role research-evidence can and should play in shaping policy and practice.

One way to do this is to reflect on how education researchers grappled with the immediate and urgent problems that COVID-19 set the educational community, and how this interacted with the decision-making taking place in policy and in practice in response to the wholly unusual conditions the pandemic created in education.

I am one of those researchers. With colleagues at the IOE Faculty of Education & Society, UCL, we conducted four research projects on COVID-19 and its impacts on education between May 2020 and September 2021 (two with funding from the ESRC, one organised through IPPO with funding from the Department for Education (DfE), and one with funding from the trade union Unison). Each ran on a tight timetable with methods chosen to allow for rapid publication of findings – the first project, which used a survey method that linked teacher responses to DfE school data, was able to report in June 2020.

Our initial concern was to research what schools were doing in response to the unusual circumstances in which they found themselves, keeping an open mind about what might matter most: a duty to care for their pupils or a duty to teach? This set us at odds with other researchers focused on calculating what might have gone missing during lockdown, expressed as hours spent in school or numbers of tasks undertaken at home, with or without feedback from teachers.

Many used these calculations to model the cumulative effect of lockdowns on children’s learning going forwards, projecting what this might mean for future earnings or life chances. This fed into a policy narrative about the need for pupils to catch up as quickly as possible. Schools were urged to keep schooling at home during the pandemic looking as much as possible like learning in school, regardless of how feasible – let alone appropriate – this might be. All in the attempt to avert the predicted attainment disaster.

To date, research into impacts on attainment, based on repeated measurement, has found smaller gaps than were predicted, particularly in English, and evidence of recovery when schools open. Our own review of published studies in May-June 2021 found much more certain evidence of impacts on nutrition and physical health than on learning, with wellbeing and mental health also meriting attention. We concluded that while the range of potential harms was clear, research could not yet identify how they might interact or best be repaired with sufficient accuracy to guide policy, given the uncertainties in the data and the potential for the picture to change as COVID disruption subsided.

Key messages for policymakers that schools have told us

Of course, schools do not have the luxury of waiting for the research evidence to tell them what to do. On the contrary, throughout the pandemic they have been making decisions about what to prioritise and how to react, based on their interactions with pupils and parents and what this told them about what mattered most.

By asking schools how they had adapted during the pandemic, what they learnt through initial trial and error and from communication with parents, and how they assessed pupils’ needs as they came back to school, we built up an evidence base from the frontline in our qualitative case studies that does indeed have something to say back to policy. Key messages include the following:

  1. The Government’s decision to allocate recovery monies to external tutoring companies bypasses local knowledge in inefficient ways. There is not an evidence base that supports individual tuition delivered in this way as an appropriate recovery mechanism under post-pandemic conditions.
  2. The expertise acquired in schools about how to maintain education under difficult circumstances is a resource that policymakers could usefully tap into and should not discount.
  3. To enable all children to recover, schools working in areas of highest poverty need more generous funding which recognises and will address the material disbenefits that poverty creates.

The prevailing models determining the relationships between education research policy and practice in England are leading to too much reliance on data and methods that cannot adequately represent the problems most in need of redress. They give too little say to teachers, parents and pupils over what the real questions are, and limit the capacity of research to answer their concerns. This can and should change.

Gemma Moss is Director of the ESRC’s Education Research Programme, which is currently being commissioned.