Keeping up with the pace of change

Female running on roadWhen I decided to embark on a PhD over four years ago, I was keen for my research area to be useful and topical – after all, as researchers, we want our work to make a difference. I did a bit of digging around and it quickly came to my attention that early entry and multiple entry to GCSE exams were hot topics.

'Early entry' refers to students completing a GCSE in a given subject before the expected stage of school (ie before the end of year 11), and 'multiple entry' to students certificating in a given subject on more than one occasion. Although defined separately, they often go hand-in-hand, with early entry typically facilitating multiple entry.

The rise in early and multiple entry led to regular debates and news articles claiming that these strategies were having a detrimental effect on students. Yet it was also apparent that there was a distinct lack of research evidence, so nobody could say anything for certain. I realised I’d found my research area!

Fast-forward to today and the use of these entry strategies has dramatically declined. This follows policy changes in September 2013 which mean that only a student’s first entry counts towards school performance tables1. So, where does this leave the last four years of hard work?

Out of date?

I wouldn’t say that I was completely naive when selecting my PhD topic – I always had a sense that policy changes could impact on my work. However, there’s a significant appeal to working in a highly topical area as the work you do feels immediately relevant. You can add to the debate as it unfolds and people are keen to hear about your ideas – which shouldn’t do your chances of publishing papers or presenting at conferences any harm!

The downside is that things can move swiftly, meaning that your work can quickly become (or at least feel) out of date. Policy changes can impact on your work, making it redundant – or fellow researchers can get in first and publish the study you were planning for your final chapter, while you’re still grappling with the literature.

This highlights a useful lesson I learnt. Regardless of the field you’re working in, things are unlikely to stand still while you’re doing your research. In the case of education, the current pace of change seems particularly rapid and the longer your research takes, the greater the chance of the ground shifting beneath you. This is particularly the case with a PhD, especially when doing it part-time.

So, after an initial bit of panicking as to whether my work was becoming irrelevant, I began to think about my research differently. This allowed me to consider how it sat within the wider context of educational assessment. Ultimately, early and multiple entry became a case study for exploring much wider issues – for example, how accountability measures can drive strategic entry policies within schools, and how this can impact upon teaching and learning. 

Building policy memory

My experience is not uncommon, and it raises an important question – how can our research inform policy and practice, when getting it right and drawing meaningful conclusions can be a slower process than the pace of policy change itself? One thing that may help is building policy memory2 – the ability to learn from past experiences and drive good practice in the future.

In my case, although early and multiple entry have declined, the use of these strategies is likely to have had a number of consequences for students, schools, awarding bodies, and the wider assessment system – and it is unlikely that these effects will be restricted to these particular behaviours. In fact, early and multiple entry can be seen as just one form of strategic exam entry. With recent changes to accountability measures (eg the introduction of Progress 8), there is scope for other behaviours to emerge in the future.

Education often works in cycles and it is quite probable that the issues associated with early and multiple entry will resurface again in the future. By building policy memory, we may just have the evidence we need to steer things in the right direction next time round.

Rachel Taylor

References

  1. Department for Education. (2013). Changes to early entry at GCSE. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/changes-to-early-entry-at-gcse
  2. Higham, J., & Yeomans, D. (2007). Policy Memory and Policy Amnesia in 14-19 Education: learning from the past? In D. Raffe & K. Spours (Eds.), Policy Making and Policy Learning in 14-19 Education (pp. 33–60). London: Institute of Education.

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