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Changing the way we learn

David Raffe looks forwardto a new future for the CES under a Scottish parliament

An anniversary is an occasion to reflect on past achievements and future ambitions. Judged by conventional academic criteria such as publications and research grants, the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University has a long list of achievements to its credit over the past quarter of a century. However, the centre's most important achievement was brought home to us a little more than three years ago, at a critical point in its history when it seemed that we might not reach our 25th birthday.

We were nearing the end of our term as a research centre for the Economic and Social Research Council. Despite a glowing report from an evaluation panel, our core funding would not be extended. While we were reviewing our future we were heartened by messages of support from senior figures in Scottish education. They urged us to continue, not only because our research was useful for policy and practice, but because the centre was a source of independent evidence, analysis and critical commentary on current developments.

Many of these messages of support came from the very policy-makers who were the potential targets of our critical analyses, but who understood the need for an independent perspective. More recently, when Cathy Howieson and I have been interviewing policy-makers for current research projects, we have again been exhorted to maintain this function of independent evidence and critical analysis. The most important achievement of the CES has been to maintain a source of openness and self-questioning in the sometimes closed and complacent world of Scottish education.

The CES has bounced back. We are winning new research grants, expanding our numbers and developing new fields of study. We have joined with our colleagues in the university's former Department of Education to form the Institute for the Study of Education and Society (ISES); we are looking forward to joining the new faculty of education, to be formed from the university's proposed merger with Moray House Institute. And this week we celebrate our 25th anniversary.

The centre's research over the past quarter of a century reads like a history of Scottish education and training, especially of the secondary and post-secondary stages. Back in the 1970s we studied the problems of "non-certificate" pupils and drew attention to their marginal status in secondary schools. In the early 1980s, we studied the collapse of the youth labour market, the rise in school-leaver unemployment and the succession of schemes that tried to address the problem. We analysed the impact of comprehensive schooling and found that it increased average indicators of school effectiveness. We studied the parental choice legislation of the 1980s and showed that it did not increase enrolment in more effective schools.

We have studied the effects of the curriculum framework in secondary 3 and secondary 4, of Standard grade, of the action plan and of the technical and vocational education initiative (TVEI). We have analysed the growth in participation beyond age 16, and the role of guidance. We have monitored reforms in further education and vocational training, the growth of higher education and the development of access provision. We have studied social disadvantage and inequality, and young people's relationships with their families. And so on. This research has drawn on a range of disciplines, approaches and methods. But one of the centre's best known achievements has been the series of surveys, developed during the 1970s and 1980s, and known for many years as the Scottish Young People's Survey.

The CES has never had a party line on educational policy issues. However, its work has been imbued by a philosophy of the role of research, first expressed in its "collaborative research" programmes of 1975-1982. In a democratic society research provides a means by which the public can call the government to account. But research cannot be conducted independently of government; it needs the resources and above all the authority which only government can provide. A regular survey, with its need for systematic sampling procedures, is an example of how research depends on the authority of the state.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, this philosophy was increasingly out of favour with a government that wanted to restrict the role of the state and which distinguished between its own interests and those of the public. The government wanted research for its own purposes, but it no longer felt it had a duty to support research by those who might criticise its policies.

Some of the centre's work - on comprehensive education, youth training, school performance and access to higher education - did not confirm its political prejudices. In the early 1990s, the government ended the centre's contract for the young people's survey and redesigned it as a smaller and cheaper operation. Data-collection was contracted out to a London survey agency which lacked expertise in Scottish education but could do the job more cheaply. There has since been a change of spirit. Many of the changes to the survey have been reversed; it has been relaunched again this year with an improved and expanded design. The CES continues to analyse youth transition surveys, and has just won the Scottish Office contract for special studies based on the new survey.

What of the next 25 years? In the first place, from next August the CES will be a prominent part of one of the country's largest faculties of education. It will have more opportunity than in the past to support the education of tomorrow's - and today's - teachers and trainers, and to contribute to the new faculty's other services to education. The new faculty will, in addition, provide a rich environment of education expertise on which the centre's research can draw.

Second, through its research the centre will seek to monitor, evaluate and guide the Scottish education and training system in a critical phase in its history. The system is diverging from the rest of the UK and may diverge further under a Scottish parliament. It has expanded in terms of student numbers and also in terms of the expectations and demands upon it. It faces the challenges of accelerating economic and social change. It must reconcile traditional principles such as equality and comprehensiveness with the demands for flexibility, choice and responsiveness. It must find a way to develop a learning society in Scotland.

Above all, the centre will maintain and develop its traditional role as a source of independent evidence, analysis and critical commentary. As Scottish education and training enter the new millennium, with new challenges and new democratic accountability, this role will be as important as ever.

Professor David Raffe is director of the Centre for Educational Studies and co-director of ISES. To mark the centre's 25th anniversary, Willis Pickard, editor of The TES Scotland, will present the 1997 ISES Lecture next Monday on "Spare the messenger: telling it as it happens". The lecture is open to the public and will be held in the UnivEd Conference and Training Centre, South College Street, Edinburgh.

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