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Centre for Educational Research and Innovation - CERI

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) - Consultants Column

 

 

 

A column dedicated to contributions from CERI consultants reflecting on their experiences working for CERI or topics related to CERI work

Some reflections on working at CERI (1995-2000)

by Dr Tom Healy

Research Associate at the Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin (healyt@tcd.ie) and Senior Statistician at the Department of Education and Science, Ireland. (tom_healy@education.gov.ie).  All views are entirely in personal capacity.

I worked at CERI from 1995 until late 2000.  As often happens in life and work – I arrived at OECD to do one thing – work on Education at a Glance Indicators  and the OECD INES indicators project – but ended up doing other things – things that went well beyond my initial ‘job spec’.  There is no mistaking what the ‘E’ in CERI stood for.  Under the tutelage of Jarl Bengtsson in the 1990s CERI not only maintained a strongly conceptual and qualitative approach to education policy and practice – it also stood at many innovative frontiers.  Of course, the ‘E’ in CERI stood for education in the broadest sense – lifelong and lifewide and the ‘I’ stood for innovation – both with respect to topics addressed in CERI and new approaches to policy research in the wider OECD environment.

An outstanding example of innovation was the work of CERI, under the leadership of Noberto Bottani, to initiate the OECD Indicators project, INES, from the late 1980s.  It was a truly marvellous project based on (a) active country engagement and partnership ‘from the bottom up’, (b) voluntarism in terms of free donations of time, effort and enthusiasm and (c) a flexible and devolved ‘network’ approach to developing new indicators.  It is not clear that such an innovative activity would have been possible anywhere else.  I often recall that sense of engagement and enthusiasm that characterised the early days of INES as precious experiences and resources for effective international collaboration with potential for application in other domains.

In the course of the 1990s, CERI introduced new topics into the OECD Education work programme ranging from ‘learning regions’ to brain research to knowledge management to ‘what works’ (quelle vulgarité!) to special needs learning to ‘schooling for tomorrow' to ICT learning and to social capital (and that list is only a sample).  Not everyone inside and outside the OECD environment was convinced of the meaning and value of all these topics and concepts.  Not infrequently, some asked ‘what is that about?’ and ‘so what?’.  At first glance, CERI seemed like a place where people engaged in more tentative, speculative, discursive, conceptual – even ‘academic’ –  type work linked to long-term education policy interests. At least that was part of the traditional explanation I encountered when struggling to understand the many different parts to what was then (1995) the Directorate for Education, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. 

At times it seemed that for someone in CERI to initiate and carry through a particular project one needed: hard neck, fire in the belly, a good dose of imagination, a capacity to listen to what others are saying and a sound grasp of new and fast-moving areas of knowledge and debate.  Above all one had to be flexible and adaptable realising that not everyone sees it your way and there are many different ways of interpreting theories, facts and analyses.

Hence, CERI was, to some extent, something of the odd person out in an Organisation whose remit is (i) shaped by macro-economic and labour market imperatives and associated policy concerns as well as (ii) a heavily empirical approach to describing and analysing various areas of economic and social policy.  CERI was different in so far as it addressed education as something vital for economic development and social inclusion and, at the same time, as something of value in itself from the perspective of sustainable communities.  Its style allowed for flexibility and it allowed people to ask  questions that did not necessarily fit into existing boxes or known categories.  If, for example, people learn differently in different circumstances and at different stages of life what does the fast-changing world of brain research suggest for curriculum, assessment and pedagogy?  There are no ready-made answers to these questions.  But, they are good questions to ask and to keep on asking as an accumulation of wisdom points policy-makers towards new directions.  In many respects, the work of organisations like OECD and, Education/CERI in particular, is to ‘re-frame’ the frameworks in which people – especially busy people like Ministers and their public servants – think, question and act.

Part of my own work at CERI from 1995 onwards was to develop indicators and analysis of ‘human capital investment’ and some associated tentative policy implications.  This work drew on an untidy and extensive literature and information base crossing a number of disciplines and policy departments from education to employment and social affairs. Yet, the thinking behind ‘human capital’ remained very economistic in terms of assumptions and working methods.  Indicators focussed on measurable additions to skill or educational attainment of individuals and the associated increases in earnings and productivity when all measurable costs were taken into account.  Publishing Human Capital Investment (HCI) in 1998 was the result of input from a number of dialogues over 1996-1997 as well as a summary of what was known about the economic and social returns to schooling and training.  In its opening chapter, HCI attempted to push beyond some traditional boundaries by questioning a purely market-based, institutional (as in formal education and training) and individualistic approach to HCI theorising and measurement. It got a mention in the Council of the OECD meeting at ministerial level in 1998 (as it was in direct response to two Ministerial mandates – in 1995 and 1996).

Next on the agenda was The Well-Being of Nations (WBN) published in 2001 and prepared on the basis of work undertaken mainly in 1999 and 2000 along with Sylvain Cote.  This work did not arise directly from any ministerial mandate; nor was it published in time to be considered at the 2001 meeting of Education Ministers.  Yet it did receive some publicity beyond OECD and raised a few eyebrows: ‘we didn’t think OECD quite got into that territory’.  WBN retained the focus on human capital as a key investment in the knowledge economy with a wide range of economic and social benefits. However, it went beyond HCI in integrating the concepts of social capital and sustainable development.  A key argument in WBN was that social capital and human capital were complements and that education policy need to acknowledge the potential of some forms of social capital to promote better quality investment in human capital as well as well-being.  Well-being was conceptualised as something broader than economic well-being or gross domestic product per capita.  Implicitly, WBN questioned the orthodoxy of ‘growth studies’ that assumed that growth in GDP was a good proxy for ‘economic growth’, which in turn was a good proxy for growth in human well-being and in those issues that concern public policy making. At least three aspects were neglected in many mainstream macro-economic analyses:

  • social equality (the distribution of national output matters as well as its level for economic growth);
  • social relationships (in civil society, organisations, schools); and
  • time over which investments today have important, if not uncertain, impacts environmentally, socially and economically in the future.

None of these insights were new. However, WBN brought many different strands together in one report and attempted to raise some fundamental questions about the education policy and its impact on social capital as well as the potential for traditional policy instruments in the area of schooling to make greater positive use of social capital.  Social capital in learning, geographical and professional networks constituted an important resource for schools and other centres of learning.  Too often, we can pay lip service to this resource without adequately valuing and using it.  Work on social capital, also, informed other areas of work in CERI including ‘schooling for tomorrow’ where the values, goals, orientations and context of schooling were contrasted under various models.

Working in any organisation – and international organisations are no exception – carries its own downside.  In my experience, no organisation anywhere is free of some degree of internal and external tension, conflict – ideological, inter-personal or corporate.  Sometimes, conflicts over ideas, hypotheses, methods, approaches, terminology and models become mixed up with less apparent and visible conflicts over deep-seated ideologies, egos and group-interest. But, all things considered, I think that CERI was a good place to work in. Underlying its work was a basic sense of professional cooperation and mutual respect both internally and externally with a surprisingly large range of people – not just academics but people working in many different walks of life.   CERI can continue to play a valuable role in shaping educational policy thinking into the coming years if it continues to:

  • remain relevant to the needs, concerns and questions of its main stakeholders;
  • engage with a wide range of people from Ministers, Government officials, academics, teachers, students, NGOs, others;
  • push out the agenda on education beyond traditional boundaries and disciplinary frontiers, as it has done in the past;
  • base it work on a good synthesis and mix of empirical research, case studies, literature reviews and dialogues with various stakeholders; and
  • have the courage, capacity and imagination to change and adapt.

This is a tall order for a small team that gets a lot done on matters of vital importance to good educational policy in the future!  Should the ‘I’ in CERI stand for Imagination?  Albert Einstein once said: ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’.

Publications by Tom Healy:

 

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