Education is key to improving lives. It inspires active citizens who are able to participate in shaping the future, and provides them with the tools to do so. In this changing world in which we live and learn we must continually adapt where, how and what we learn in order to respond to new work patterns, lifestyles, technologies and knowledge – Sir Alan Wilson FBA FRS.

The recent Harnessing Educational Research report by the Royal Society and the British Academy assesses the current state of educational research and sets out an ambitious vision for the future. A key recommendation of the report is the establishment of an Office for Educational Research.

To take forward this recommendation, on 6 December 2018 the Royal Society and the British Academy convened a roundtable meeting chaired by Sir Mark Walport FRS. The meeting discussed how improved coordination of educational research could benefit education policy, practice and outcomes and examples of previous initiatives were explored, as well as the steps needed to make an Office for Educational Research a reality.

Some personal reflections were offered by Sir Alan Wilson FBA FRS, chair of the Working Group that produced the report. Sir Alan explained that three types of thinking are needed to create successful policy –  policy, design and analysis – aspects which are rarely brought together in responding to the current challenges in education policy and practice.

An Office for Educational Research could bring together key stakeholders; practitioners, researchers and policymakers, to articulate the challenges of the ecosystem and address future strategic research priorities to ensure research covers policy, design and analysis elements. There needs to be an adequate pipeline of researchers, effective funding flows, and more translational research, such as evidence synthesis, for the complex ecosystem to function effectively.

The benefits of improved coordination

An Office for Educational Research would improve coordination and help set the future research agenda, with a focus on interdisciplinary and inter-institutional questions. A benefit of this would be to help avoid the duplication of effort and make the priorities of practitioners more visible. This improvement to the ecosystem would help to provide a clear case for research funders to award funding.

Coordination could also help to collate existing knowledge (which could include stronger signposting to what research already exists) and help the flows of communication between actors in the education ecosystem.

What can be learnt from previous initiatives?

The Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were discussed during the meeting and attendees explored the lessons that could be learnt from these two existing models.

OSCHR has been effective in bringing together research funders as well as identifying opportunities and solutions in Health Research. A major achievement of OSCHR was the culture change within medicinal practice towards an evidence-based practice, which had been achieved through training and practitioner accountability. Dame Anne Johnson stated one of the key factors in the success of OSCHR was its long-term independent chair.

OSCHR was established with a lean structure and minimal staffing. However, it was noted that the set-up of OSCHR had perhaps been too small to function effectively and was perhaps not sufficiently visible among the medical research community.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was also discussed. Members of the IPCC had agreed to acknowledge and set aside differences, to pursue finding areas of interest where a consensus could be reached, on the understanding that they would return to assess areas of difference in 5 years’ time to see whether improvements had been made. To address the differences between the communities’ research priorities within the education ecosystem, a similar model to the IPCC could be used.

It was noted that whilst OSCHR and the IPCC provide useful examples of existing models, to address the key issues within the current education ecosystem they are not directly translatable to education and would need to be explored further.

Next steps

As part of its Educational Research Programme, the Royal Society together with the British Academy will further explore the structure and function of an Office for Educational Research with key stakeholders in the lead up to its landmark Educational Research conference in November 2019.

Find out more about the Royal Society’s work on education and skills.