The market research behind decision-making

Reliable, ethical and representative evidence is vital to effective decision-making. It provides senior management at every educational stage with valuable insight into the behaviour, motivations and needs of those for whom their policies must cater. It is also essential in measuring the impact that education has had on the individual; how it has meaningfully changed lives. Research can generate the evidence to help in issues of accountability, advocacy and the justification of fund allocation.

This is increasingly pertinent in the current climate. Over-reliance on exam results to measure schools’ performance is coming under intense scrutiny amid demands for broader definitions of success. Similarly, universities remain under pressure to justify their ever-increasing fees and persuade young people that a degree is a worthwhile financial investment. As the necessity for justification continues across education, decisions underpinned by indicative and reliable research are more crucial than ever.  

Student satisfaction
Having key stakeholders on board is crucial to implementing any decision, and perhaps the most straightforward function of research within the educational sector is to ascertain what is likely to be well‑received. Most universities conduct surveys at the end of each term or academic year in a bid to make the curriculum better reflect what individuals want to achieve.

The application of these findings goes far beyond decision-making that will affect those currently studying, and has an important role to play in enabling universities to attract students, and the fees and funding that they bring, in the future. In many ways, the balance of power has shifted. Increased fees mean that many young people are now considering bypassing university altogether, and with publications like The Times’ Good University Guide placing increasing emphasis on student satisfaction in its rankings, it is vital that universities introduce effective feedback loops if they are to secure their futures.  
The same is true in schools: ask any teacher and they will tell you how difficult it is to implement any change in policy without having key stakeholders – especially parents – onboard. Schools inevitably rely heavily on carers to support their policies, and research is vital to understand what parents will be both willing, and able, to get on board with. A lack of insight into parental capabilities can only lead to disillusionment and disengagement from both sides, with the attendant cost.
Joined up thinking is essential in ensuring that children get the most from their education. On an everyday basis this can be as simple as ensuring that homework schedules and school events are accessible for single parent families, those where both parents work full time or the digitally disengaged.

Playground chatter
It’s also vital that families are consulted on proposed changes at a more structural level.  When communication breaks down, things can become complicated. When Rawmarsh School decided to impose a ban on children visiting local shops at lunchtimes and reworked the menu in line with Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating campaign without seeking insight into parental opinion, the upshot was the shocking images of mothers handing junk food to children through the school railings.  
The rationale invoked by senior management was sound, much of it based on research into children’s health at a governmental level. The changes were designed to address problems of unhealthy diets, litter in the local area and risks surrounding road safety. As a result, it would be easy to write off the mums handing burgers through the gates, dubbed ‘Sinner Ladies’ by the press at the time, as misguided parents uninterested in improved the diets of their children.
However, the petition created by the group of parents stated that their stand was not against healthy eating, but against the process by which the decision had been made. They pointed out, rightly, that neither they nor their children had been consulted on the new policy. One mother noted that she would have liked to have a vote. In this situation, conducting appropriate research would have served to bring parents on board at an early stage in the proceedings, allowing them to engage in and influence the process – concerns could have been addressed early on, and compromises reached. The policy could then have been rolled out from a more robust foundation of support, or at the very least understanding, and the extensive press coverage and considerable disruption to the education of the children involved could have been avoided.

Technology for all?
Having insight early on in the process can undoubtedly help to ease transitions: a key debate currently in the educational sector is the extent to which the introduction of technology in the classroom is helpful. The charity Techknowledge for Schools is, as the name suggests, campaigning for each child to have access to their own mobile technology in the classroom. As part of persuading schools and their respective stakeholders to implement policies to make this vision a reality, the organisation has undertaken extensive research with Family Kids & Youth (FK&Y) to gauge attitudes towards the proposal.
They conducted primary research throughout the UK using a range of methods from interviews both face-to-face and online, to focus groups with pupils, parents, teachers, senior management teams and governors. Most recently, ethnographic research has been conducted in situ to explore the ways in which the introduction of tablets into the classroom environment has changed how teachers and pupils interact.
As a result, schools have been able to identify key obstacles to successful implementation, which they can address to effectively roll out their strategy. The findings included that allowing enough time and training for staff to become familiar with the devices, combined with strong support in the form of clear guidelines, drove successful adoption. Insufficient knowledge of the necessary insurance, problems with Wi-Fi capacity and fears over damage and storage were also key obstacles to getting staff members on board, so schools were advised to integrate training on these aspects early on into its process. It also became clear that liaising with other schools that had already successfully implemented tablet technology was an effective way to bolster confidence in the process at all levels, providing a clear ‘blueprint’ for any roll out.
Education should have people at its centre, aiming to meet the needs of all involved. Research is integral to understanding those needs; not just the ‘what’ but the ‘why’. Data is only as valuable as the questions you ask of it: insight provides the human element which can so often be missing from decisions made based purely on facts and figures. Statistics can only be used to their full potential when placed in context, analysed, and considered in light of the unpredictable and the foibles of human nature – the mothers pushing burgers through school gates, to return to that notable example. Used intelligently, research must play a central role in creating and maintaining an educational system that delivers better outcomes for all.

Further information