Is research evidence informing government policy in education?

David Gough

Recently there has been increased interest in the use of evidence from research studies to inform policy making by government. This research evidence can be of many types. It can include empirical findings on things such as educational attainment, and evidence of effectiveness (‘what works’) of different strategies (such as how to teach phonics). It can also include explanations of how things work and how the world can be understood. Research is of course not the only thing that can influence policy, it is just one important useful resource.

But is research being used in this way in practice? The House of Commons Education Select Committee has been asking this question of the Department for Education (DfE). They have asked the DfE to explain the way that research has informed nine different areas of government education policy. The nine topics (and links to the DfE’s answers) can be found at these links:

To take one example, the DfE response points out that teaching assistants can make an important contribution if deployed effectively. Systematic reviews (like those undertaken at the EPPI-Centre where I work) provide an overview of what the research evidence states. We have not undertaken reviews on teaching assistants, but the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) have summarised the results of other systematic reviews in their Toolkit. The EEF Toolkit confirms that there is evidence that teaching assistants can be effective, but also suggests that further evidence still is needed.

The Select Committee is also interested in what we all think about the extent to which the DfE has used evidence. They want to know your thoughts on: (i) The strength of the evidence submitted by the DfE on the nine topic areas; and (ii) The DfE’s use of evidence more generally. Find out more at:

This ‘Evidence Check’ process is a fascinating way for Parliament (and all of us) to see how research is (or is not) being used to inform government policy. The EPPI-Centre at the Institute of Education has been involved in these issues in a number of ways.

We develop methods for mixed methods systematic reviews of the research evidence – so that an explicit summary of research rather than individual studies or opinion alone can inform policy and practice. We also work with the Coalition for Evidence Based Education to facilitate the use of research evidence in education and have led two European Commission EIPPPEE projects to share learning in evidence use across Europe. We have developed a Research Advisory Service to assist those who want help in understanding how research might be of assistance to them. As we also need to study processes of how research is used (research on research use), we are evaluating initiatives to increase evidence use by teachers in schools for the EEF. We even help edit an academic journal on such issues called Evidence and Policy. And we are not alone in undertaking this developmental work at the Institute: we also contribute to the IOE Research and Development Network that provides research support services to schools.

The Education Select Committee’s Evidence Check consultation closes on the 12th December. We look forward to hearing the Committee’s deliberations.

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Posted in Education policy, Research matters, Schools
7 comments on “Is research evidence informing government policy in education?
  1. … “can make an important contribution if deployed effectively” (DfE)

    This is just another of those tautologies that politicians (and sometimes researchers, sadly) use to explain things they are bewildered by. How could such a hollow statement be contradicted?

    I do wonder what kind of education produces public figures who think that such vacuity makes them sound authoritative.

    • David Gough says:

      I agree that the DfE could be more specific, but hopefully this process of Select Committees asking Ministries for evidence will encourage greater attention to (and specificity about)evidence in policy making. Only a few education academics have responded on the Select Committee’s website which is a pity when this issue is so central to their work But there is still time as the deadline has been extended to Monday 14th December.

      • In a very broad sense (and going back decades) UK Governments have been very reluctant to embrace research, or to make its findings accessible to educators beyond academic walls. To that extent I entirely agree with your point and with your disappointment at a paucity of academic responses to the Select Committee.

        My own history in education took me through a wide range of experiences where research findings went unacknowledged but my one meeting with a senior adviser at the DfE (himself an academic researcher) was the most disheartening, When political ambition and educational research do not coincide, research is in no position to compete.

        Where Ministers might have qualms about abusing medical research, educational inquiry has more often been filed under “blob”, with correspondingly hostile consequences for funding, infrastructure, dissemination and (especially) critique and argument.

        Perhaps the Select Committee is the best possible way of getting a hearing (and wider publicity) for what might be troubling or dissenting submissions. Let’s hope more find the time and energy to make submissions to the new deadline,

  2. Reblogged this on markquinn1968 and commented:
    EPPI’s David Gough encourages comments on DfE’s use of evidence in education.

  3. […] regularly publishes educational research, worth a read. IoE London blog Answering questions like: Is research evidence informing government policy in education? National Foundation for Educational Research NfER Research in Teacher Education from the […]

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