EduResearch Matters, but not as much as the narrative

Innuendo and distortion on the AARE blog

The Australian Association for Educational Research (AARE) has a blog on which it publishes articles by Australian education academics. The latest offering is by Viv Ellis, who is in the interesting position of having recently moved from London to Monash University in Melbourne.

Ellis’s post is about the changes being made to teacher training in England and ostensibly addresses the question of whether such changes could happen here. Ellis is broadly correct that there are structural issues that would make it harder. For instance, Ellis notes that, “for similar conditions for [Initial Teacher Education] reform to exist in Australia, all Commonwealth and state regulatory and deliberative bodies would have to be abolished – goodbye AITSL, ACARA, the teacher regulatory authorities, etc,” which strikes me as an idea with potential.

Largely, however, the article is a typical example of a certain kind of academic argument that avoids taking events at face value and instead seeks to explain them in terms of dark, conservative, authoritarian voices (or ‘neoliberal’ or ‘populist’ etc.). We are told of the havoc being wrought on the sector in England by the Initial Teacher Training Market Review that will require providers to reapply for accreditation. The horror! Ellis quotes Jo-Anne Baird, director of Oxford University’s Department of Education, as saying, “I don’t know any university that would be able to create a model that runs counter to the principles of academic freedom.”

I find this notion of academic freedom interesting. It has been a key plank of many objections to the Market Review. It also clearly mimics recent arguments mounted against university cancel culture - arguments deployed in controversies such as the case of Peter Ridd who was sacked from his post at James Cook University in Queensland after making critical comments about the research of his colleagues. Attempting to coopt this narrative is therefore testimony to its power.

However, in the case of teacher education, invoking academic freedom seems dubious. All I want is a system of teacher training that focuses on the best available evidence. This means that primary teachers should be taught about the key role of phonics instruction, among the other elements of early literacy. It means that all teachers should be taught robust results from educational psychology such as the effectiveness of practice testing. To be honest, I would be happy enough if I didn’t have to listen to another job candidate explain to me the strategies they employ in order to avoid giving direct instruction.

I cannot speak for the UK and Australian governments, but it is similar concerns that I read in to their pursuit of reform. An analogy of the academic freedom argument would be if medical schools churned out doctors who were sceptical of vaccines, the government attempted to act on this and the medical schools charged them with infringing academic freedom. Nobody is denying any single academic’s right to voice scepticism of phonics, we are just objecting to academics teaching this scepticism as fact to trainees. Trainees should be taught where the weight of evidence lies, even if incomplete, imperfect and subject to future revision.

However, Ellis inevitably infers darker motives. And he is able to make the facts fit his narrative.

When the Conservatives came to power in the UK in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they embarked upon a bonfire of the quangos - the quasi-autonomous non-government organisations regulating education in England. According to Ellis, these bodies were abolished, “by the education minister, Michael Gove, alongside then special advisor, Dominic Cummings, an architect of the Vote Leave (Brexit) campaign.”

Boo and hiss the nasty Brexit man!

According to Ellis, this ‘selective dismantling’ was intended to concentrate power with ministers. It’s not possible, in this narrative, that they just thought there were too many bureaucratic sinecures that added little to the system. However, Ellis also notes that contrary to this dismantling agenda, Gove and Cummings did not, for some reason, dismantle Ofsted, the body that regulates schools. I guess that’s why it was ‘selective’ dismantling. Nevertheless, Ofsted has apparently also become a tool for authoritarians in government. It is somehow less of an independent agency than the quangos that were abolished and it conducts research which some education academics don’t like.

So, when the UK government abolishes regulatory agencies, this is in order to increase political control over the system and when in retains regulatory agencies, this is in order to increase political control over the system. All possible outcomes can be explained and nothing can prove the narrative false.

Ellis then complains about Ofsted’s recent decision to label some teacher training providers as inadequate or in need of improvement. I find this sardonically amusing. For years, when I have criticised teacher education in England, I have been told there is no evidence to support my views and Ofsted’s favourable reports have been brandished to prove me wrong. Yet now, their unfavourable reports must be dismissed.

Over time, I have become desensitised to this kind of argument. Making up a story and then cutting-and-pasting facts and events to fit that story is considered to be legitimate scholarship in some academic circles.

However, a part of this post struck me as closer to one of those pseudonymously penned hatchet-jobs you are likely to read in Yorkshire Bylines than something worthy of the AARE blog. This is the part where Ellis goes after teachers who, frustrated with the poor relationship between traditional education gatekeepers and research evidence, have taken to Twitter and other forms of social media to spread this knowledge for themselves. They are just useful idiots or, perhaps, on the make.

“Distinctively, too, English education ministers have relied on a very small number of individuals (a few teachers, current and former, often with very limited classroom time*, usually active on Twitter, and one with unsuccessful experience as a nightclub bouncer; some chief execs of those multi-academy trusts; and always, always the same professor) upon whom they have bestowed political patronage, a sub-set of whom have also been funded to compete with legacy providers like universities or traditional education entrepreneurs.”

One of the hyperlinks sends you to the LinkedIn page of a teacher who set-up a national online academy that produced recorded lessons that schools could use for free during lockdown. The absolute swine. Tellingly, very little of equivalent practical value has emerged in recent times from education faculties.

And the reference to ‘a nightclub bouncer’ is simply incorrect. To the best of my knowledge, the person in question is a former nightclub manager and not a bouncer.

I thought I would point this out in the comments. I did not necessarily expect Ellis to change the text, but I was surprised that my comment has not even passed moderation (at least at time of writing). Last night, I received an email from a person I assume is the editor of the AARE blog explaining that, “Being a bouncer was not his full time job but he did indeed fulfil those duties” before quoting a newspaper article stating that he, “sometimes had to fill in on the door.”

Which is ridiculous.

But why does this narrative need a nightclub bouncer? Well nightclub bouncers are the other. They are not nice middle-class academics like the people reading the AARE blog. Nightclub bouncers could conceivably have voted for Brexit under the influence of that disagreeable Mr. Cummings.

In other words, this is about class.

So, what are those of us who care about evidence in education to do? I suggest we take heart. I am sure that Ellis finds his own argument compelling, but as long as educationalists continue to make their case though innuendo and conspiracies and are opposed by people marshalling facts and evidence, they won’t cut through. Some of the academics reading the AARE blog will be convinced, but the rest of the world will progress. And so will our chance at reform.

*Seriously? There are folks teaching trainee teachers in Australia that have spent zero time working in the classroom.