‘Closing the gap’: Problems with its philosophy and research

John Raven (Dr)
30 september 2019

In this paper, problems with the philosophy and research relating to various interpretations of ‘closing the gap’ are used to open up a discussion of, and illustrate, the process whereby a narrow interpretation of ‘science’ and neglect of systems thinking result in the generation of huge amounts of dangerous and misleading misinformation and thence the generation of draconian and destructive policies. The paper opens by returning to an unfinished debate arising out of a summary of the unanticipated and counterintuitive effects of interventions designed to close the ‘attainment’ gap between more and less advantaged pupils. This is used to illustrate the importance of studying the unintended as well as intended outcomes of interventions and the importance of considering whether those outcomes are desirable. More of the problems facing those who seek to contribute to evidence-based policy are then illustrated via a discussion of an ‘illuminative’ evaluation of competency-oriented, project-based, education carried out in environments around primary schools. The result is to highlight the need for comprehensive evaluation of educational projects and policies. ‘Comprehensive evaluation’ implies the evaluation of all short and long term, personal and social, desired and desirable, and undesired and undesirable effects of the programmes and policies under investigation. When this criterion is applied, it emerges that most of the published evaluations fall well short of the mark. Indeed, most of the conclusions that are drawn are seriously misleading. As a result, they contribute to the formulation and legitimisation of policies involving alarming levels of authoritarian state intervention in peoples’ lives. The generation of such misleading information is much more widespread and serious than that exposed by the ‘replication crisis’. It is argued that at the heart of this lies the pervasive deployment of reductionist science. Other serious deficits in the thinking and methodology of psychologists and educational researchers are then discussed. It is vital for psychologists to do what they can to rectify the situation. The paper concludes with an extensive discussion of ways in which the British Psychological Society (BPS) in general, and the Psychology of Education Section in particular, might contribute to this process.