Education and education research are endeavours that I have been involved in from the day I was born, beginning with the ‘Born to Fail’[1] study referenced in ‘Born to Fail? Social Mobility A Working Class View’ [2].  As a teacher during the 1980s I led school-based research referenced in the ‘Arts in Schools’[3] project led by Sir Ken Robinson. Followed in the 1990s with participation in Action Research initiatives under Jack Whitehead’s tutelage. Later in my career I was fortunate to be guided by Philippa Cordingley in the Teacher Training Agency’s Teacher Researcher[4] initiative. Many other research projects have evolved within my own teaching and degree studies (Cert Ed., BEd, MA, MPhil, EdD), leading to the supervision and assessment of Masters, PhD and EdD theses in 12 UK universities.  My firm belief throughout my research journey has been that education research has a moral purpose strongly related to the moral purpose of education, to improve the lives of all learners.

Fairly confident in my own position I put this question to colleagues engaged in education and education research; their responses include:

Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope (Provost and Professor of Education, Marjon University, Plymouth):

The term ‘education research’ is one that has been debated in relation to moral purpose. Geoff Whitty (2003)[5] argued for consideration of how we used the term interchangeably with ‘educational research’:

“Education research [is used] to characterise the whole field; but it may be that within that field we should reserve the term educational research for work that is consciously geared towards improving policy and practice.” (p.172)

Given the focus of the Research Exercise Framework (REF) on impact in research, utility appears to be the main driver for educational research. Some academics challenge this, believing education research should include investigation ‘uninterested in considerations of use’ (Black and Wiliam, 2003, p. 632)[6] and not be tied to its usefulness. These academics sill recognise, however that most research in, and of, education has a purpose for improving or enhancing policy or practice. It could be argued therefore that the ‘moral’ purpose of research in education lies in our understanding for its focus. Educational research should have impact that informs and changes education to make it better than it was before (working outside of political paradigms and ideologies). Education research meanwhile should remain disinterested.

Dr Suanne Gibson (Interim Director of Plymouth Institute of Education, Associate Professor of Education, Plymouth University):

As Education researchers and practitioners, we individually and collaboratively come from particular persuasions, perspectives and political positions. In my years of research, teaching and leadership I’ve had the privilege to educate, learn from and grow with many. The core message that consistently emanates from my work with others is that of Marx (cited in McLellan 1977)[7] and his stance that whilst philosophers, aka researchers, have interpreted the world, the need is to change it. So, I hold that education research, core to the advancement of new knowledge and practice, has a moral purpose to level the playing field and challenge inequality; making opportunity, individual and community transformation available to all. In this current era of ongoing discrimination, prejudice, oppression and growing levels of childhood poverty, education research must engage with such a position, pushing forward its quest to create and sustain socially just spaces and places.

Daria Kuznetsova (Executive Director Strategy, Research and Performance, Teach First:

The moral purpose of education research is to further our understanding of how every child, regardless of background, can get a brilliant education. Education research can help address the growing gaps that exist between the educational experiences of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds with their better off counterparts. As a system, we should use education research to share areas of effective practice and improve upon areas that are less effective.

Stefan Burkey freelance researcher and writer[8]:

Education research - regardless of whether it is Applied, Critical, Ethnomethodological, Hermeneutic, Observational, Phenomenological, Positivist, Post-positivist, Post-modern, Qualitative, Quantitative, Quasi-experimental, Structuralist, or Symbolic - has no moral purpose or moral value unless it in some way helps us to understand how we can improve the lives of children and young people. That’s not to say all educational research should lead to immediate practical recommendations – it can be highly theoretical and disapplied and still have moral value if it contributes to our collective capacity to do good and make positive change through policy and practice.

The common thread between colleagues is ‘improvement’, which is axiomatic within the context of education. The related point is one of ‘understanding’ through increased knowledge, which in turn will inform policy and practice.  This would appear to resonate with current practitioner research practice, advocated by CUREE[9] and the Chartered College of Teaching[10].

In contrast to the above the ‘What Works’ agenda that began 10 years ago has led to a single methodological approach rooted in the positivistic paradigm that is highly judgemental of methodologies that do not engage in this ‘gold standard’ of all research methods, Randomised Controlled Trials or RCTs.

There are many papers written on the application of RCTs in education, I have yet to read of one that relates directly to the moral purpose of education or education research in improving lives. More frequently findings are focused on the accumulative impact, measured by number rather than engaging with the context where the research took place,

A rigorous RCT that shows no effect of an intervention is not a failure of the design used to evaluate it. Instead, it gives us precious hard-won knowledge that the intervention is either ineffective or has negligible benefits in relation to its costs.[11] 

The British Educational Research Association (BERA)[12] offered a statement to serve as a shared reference-point for high quality research, conducted within diverse research traditions, that shares the central aim of contributing to educational practice. In it, BERA defines high-quality close-to-practice research as follows:

High quality close-to-practice research requires the robust use of research design, theory, and methods to address clearly defined research questions, through an iterative process of research and application. The research process will be well documented and the conclusions that are drawn will be appropriate to the strengths and weaknesses of the design, theory and methods used. Such research will draw upon practitioners’ and researchers’ reflections on both practice and context.

BERA continues,

Education is an applied discipline, and there are several well-established traditions of educational research focussing on issues of practice. These traditions include (but are not restricted to) action research, practitioner research, design-based research, randomised controlled trials and lesson study. Some of these have more established and explicit quality criteria, while in others there is less consensus over methods and how their quality can be judged. BERA is adopting the term ‘close-to-practice (CtP) research’ as a shorthand for any research that focusses on educational practices in order to better understand or improve them. (This is not to suggest that CtP is a new research tradition or paradigm.)

In the above, BERA presents well-defined statement that embraces understanding and improvement. However, such is the impact of RCTs on recent education policy by defining practice is summed up by Professor Philip Garner (Professor of Education, Brunel University London, Emeritus Professor, University of Northampton)[13]:

This blind allegiance to RCT contradicts notions of individual agency and empowerment - especially amongst marginalised groups. The absence of granularity and the over-bearing positivist stance fails to recognise the important small steps that individual learners make. I think this is a major shortcoming of such methodology - it encourages both the continued gaze at the problem and professional inertia. The latter is especially damaging to teachers working with those CYP experiencing barriers to learning.

I can only agree with Professor Garner’s stance; education is for all children and young people providing much more than measurable positivistic outcomes, producing knowledge that informs practice in improving outcomes, increasing understanding of self as a foundation for lifelong learning. As Dr Catherine Knowles commented:

…we should not overlook the human subject. Educational research has little moral purpose if we ignore the individuality of the human subject. Ethics, within the context of its definition as ‘a branch of philosophy concerned with human character and conduct’[14], permeates research to such an extent that the whole process can be thought of as ethical activity.

Critics of the positivist scientific approach[15], a typical approach in RCTs, argue that when quantification is an end in itself, the human subject of the research is overlooked; cause and effect are explored in a field which is more complex and multifaceted[16]. Capturing the full human context of the classroom- the teacher, the particular teaching approach, the characteristics of the pupils etc.-is part of an ethical research approach, providing a firm foundation for considering why something is effective and may be scalable.

With the increasing use of RCTs in educational research, responsibilities to research participants, is not the only issue at stake. For researchers to maintain professional integrity - that is, the idea of not spoiling the field for others and entering the field of study in a manner appropriate to enhancing goodwill and co-operation- may be harder to achieve with schools which experience an unprecedented number of researchers passing through their gates.[17]

What is the moral purpose of education research? It is not to negate longitudinal contextual practice that draws on practitioners’ and researchers’ reflections on both practice and context, the moral purpose of education research is to improve and understand learning.


Professor Sonia Blandford

April 2021


[1] Wedge, P. and Prosser, H. (1973) Born to Fail? London: Arrow Books in association with The National Children’s   Bureau

[2] Blandford, S, (2017) Born to Fail? Social Mobility A Working Class View Woodbridge: John Catt Educational


[4] Blandford, S. and Dew-Hughes, D. (1998) Newly Qualified Teachers and Pupils with Challenging Behaviour, Teacher Research Grant Findings, London: Teacher Training Agency

[5] Whitty, G. (2003) Education(al) research and education policy making: is conflict inevitable? British Educational Research Journal Vol. 32, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 159–176

[6] Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2003) In praise of educational research: formative assessment, British Educational Research Journal, 29(5), pp. 623–638.

[7] McLellan, D. (1977), Karl Marx Selected Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press

[8] Research clients include Achievement for All; AQA; the Children’s Commissioner; Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills; Department for Education; the Economic and Social Research Council; Edge Hill University; Education Development Trust; Institute of Education; the Local Government Association; National College; NCFE; Plymouth University; Sheffield Hallam University; Department of Health; and Teach First.





[13] FED Conference, March 2021

[14] Chambers Dictionary (1983), Edinburgh: Chambers

[15] Bonell, C., Moore, G., Warren, E. et al. (2018) Are randomised controlled trials positivist? Reviewing the social science and philosophy literature to assess positivist tendencies of trials of social interventions in public health and health services. Trials 19, 238

[16] Hitchcock. D. and Hughes, D.(1995) (2nd. Ed.) Research and the Teacher, London: Routledge

[17] Knowles, C. (2005) Moral education in Catholic secondary schools: A statistical study of student responses in England and France, unpublished PhD