Those of us who spend part of our lives working as educational researchers sometimes decry the fact that much of the education policy implemented by national governments, has little or no foundation in evidence. Policy is at times developed purely on a political whim, and simply reflects the dogma of the current administration. Indeed it can even appear as if policy in my own country is implemented despite being contrary to the evidence provided by a significant corpus of research. The low status afforded to educational research, as opposed to that in many of the pure science disciplines, is often a source of frustration to both teachers and researchers, and is indicative of a lack of respect shown by politicians towards those working in the education professions. However, in recent years I have been pleased to find that there is a notable exception to this situation.
In the Republic of Ireland a significant emphasis is given to the development of evidence based practice in schools. The area of special and inclusive education in particular, is one that has benefited significantly from efforts to conducted investigations into the efficacy of teaching approaches, and the deployment of resources and specific initiatives in schools. The National Council for Special Education, a department which is funded and supported by the Irish national government, has commissioned and overseen a number of substantial research projects that have influenced both policy and practice at a national level.
These projects have included investigations into pedagogical practices to support the education of deaf children, research into the management of challenging behaviours and a longitudinal study of the provision made and learning outcomes for children across the country. The National Council for Special Education having tendered for these investigations have employed research teams from both within Ireland and further afield, and have demonstrated a commitment to improving school practice on the basis of the evidence provided.
The results of research are disseminated through well produced reports, written in language accessible to service users and providers, and through national conferences for teachers, school principals and parents. Because of this collegiate approach, a mutual respect has developed between schools, researchers and this commissioning government agency. Practices in schools have been changed and the excellent work of teachers and other professional colleagues has been endorsed and supported as a result of this approach.
Recently I had an opportunity to attend a conference for around three hundred professionals and parents at which some of the latest research commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, including a project in which I have been fortunate to be involved, was discussed. The importance of this way of working was emphasised by a guest speaker, Professor Samuel Odom from the University of North Carolina in the USA, who during an interesting presentation showed how bogus approaches to working with children on the autism spectrum have emerged as a result of strange doctrines that have no foundation in research evidence. As he advised, if we simply develop practice on the basis of a philosophy or the notions of a few individuals or politicians, without recourse to a rigorous investigation of the ethics, efficacy and impact of the approach, we may well end up doing more harm than good. Professor Odom made a strong case for ensuring that before significant changes are implemented in schools, these should be subjected to a thorough investigation using objective means to verify their likely impact.
The teamwork established between policy makers, researchers, school managers and teachers in Ireland provides a sound example of how a shared focus upon providing effective teaching and learning can be achieved. If only every government were able to demonstrate the same commitment to this systematic approach to understanding what works in schools, we might find that teachers and children were more assured in the excellent work that they do together in classrooms.