An education in using evidence

From the introduction of free schools and the English Baccalaureate to a review of the National Curriculum and vocational qualifications, the education system is undergoing a period of rapid change.  Now, more than ever, those working in the sector need to understand the practices, values and impacts of different models of school governance. What’s best for the future? Are schools spending the right money in the right areas? And what do young people need to do to give themselves the best chance of success in these increasingly difficult times?
Jane Frost CBE, ceo of the Market Research Society (MRS), explains how market research can help to answer these questions: “In the era of educational choice and competition, using reliable evidence is invaluable, providing insights that those working in the sector wouldn’t be able to get any other way.”  

The recession has hit young people particularly hard and created a very competitive employment environment where educational qualifications are coming under increased scrutiny and even the brightest of students can struggle to find jobs. The futures and expectations of the country’s school leavers are also changing with university education now seen to be financially out of reach for many. As a result, schools have had to adapt the advice they provide to pupils on what steps to take next and encourage them to consider alternative options.
“Reform in education is set to continue and in the current economic and employment climate, it is increasingly important for education providers, whether academy groups, FE colleges or schools, to understand the impact that this may have,” says Claire Purchase, head of public services at FreshMinds. “Robust evidence will aid decision making by helping institutions to understand the impact of new models of funding and schooling, ensuring that advice, guidance and money is allocated in the right areas.”

The previous government encouraged university education with a 50 per cent target and, for a long time, it was considered the logical progression for the majority of young people with options disregarded. However, there is now a range of routes students can take – whether school, college, independent training provider, or into the workplace for an apprenticeship.

Pupil misconceptions
Pupils often have misconceptions about the value of alternative routes, such as vocational training, and need a fair and balanced perspective which highlights the advantages of each option and how they suit different types of people. “At a time when students are increasingly hesitant about their prospects in the job market, and schools and universities face uncertainty when it comes to securing funding, there is a need for solid evidence to inform crucial decisions and shape future policies”, Jane adds.
And it’s not just young people who are being affected by changes in the sector. With the retirement age much higher than it used to be, it has become more common to change careers later in life. This has meant that many adults, whose wants and needs are different to younger people, are returning to higher education.
Jane continues: “Institutions need to understand their audiences and the range of alternative models now available. Research gives you an expert professional team that knows the sector inside out, delivering accurate findings and offering an independent view.”
It is important that commissioners of research understand all of the options available to ensure that they choose the right one. Qualitative research could involve evaluation of teaching tools using a small sample to create improved products, or sensitive research with small hard-to-reach groups who would not normally respond to traditional research methods such as surveys or telephone interviews. On the other hand, quantitative research involves big sample sizes, such as the National Student Survey, and covers larger-scale issues where an understanding of the views of a large number of people is important.

Commissioning research
You may have more information at your fingertips than you realise and you just need help to analyse it. The key is using competent and qualified research professionals – they will know how to keep costs down while delivering research that meets your objectives. It might include an audit of existing sources and some telephone interviews, for example. Doing this with a research supplier, rather than handling it internally, means you get efficient results, from a team with an objective view.
Professional research is underpinned by robust methodologies and a strong ethical framework detailed in the MRS Code of Conduct. MRS members and Company Partners have to abide by the MRS Code which, together with relevant legislation such as the Data Protection Act of 1998, provides a step-by-step guide to providing effective, impartial and ethical research. When these legal and ethical rules and guidelines are met, research can provide an unparalleled insight into the thoughts and opinions of stakeholders and audiences that can redefine the way decisions are made.

Buyer's guide
The MRS’s Research Buyer’s Guide should be your first port of call for finding a good research organisation. The site lists MRS Company Partners and organisations with MRS members, their contact details, geographic area and research specialisms. All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.

About MRS
With members in more than 60 countries, MRS is the world’s largest research association serving all those with professional equity in provision or use of market, social and opinion research, and in business intelligence, market analysis, customer insight and consultancy.

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