Down and out in 1920s and present

The European Educational Research Association conference in Frankfurt provided an opportunity to pool ideas, network and gain first-hand experience of some inner-city problems that many teachers are all too familiar with. David Budge reports

George Grosz's lurid paintings of down-and-outs, tight-skirted prostitutes and bloated bourgeois depict the Berlin of the early 1920s. But as members of the European Educational Research Association discovered at their recent conference the same characters can be found on the streets of Frankfurt in 1997.

The city has 400 banks and 40 museums. The trains still run on time and the gleaming Mercs and BMWs are jammed nose-to-tail in the more prosperous quarters. But Frankfurt also has some social problems that are as awesome as its skyscrapers.

Researchers swapped stories about the addicts that they had seen shooting up in the street, the man who was covered in blood after being slashed in the face, and the girl beggars who boldly walked into the conference rooms at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, looking for brass.

Their glimpse of life in the gutter must have caused some researchers to ponder again what education alone can do to improve the life chances of the poorest children. But it would be wrong to portray the EERA members as effete academics suddenly exposed to real life. The Goethe University is almost a part of the Clockwork Orange world itself because its own "ivory tower" - a 35-storey block - has been covered with spray-paint graffiti all the way to the top.

Perhaps that helps to explain why only 600 researchers attended this year's conference, compared with the 900 who had a more high-spirited time in Seville last year. The dramatic drop suggests that location is not the only problem that EERA must wrestle with, but it would be premature to write an obituary notice for this three-year-old organisation.

If it is to thrive in future, however, it must become less British. More than 200 of the conference-goers were from the United Kingdom, and some of Europe's biggest countries had no more than a token representation: France sent 12 researchers, Italy only two. "This year's conference has been like BERA abroad," said one waggish member of the British Educational Research Association.

Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University helped to restore the national balance by not turning up, but it was ironic that he, of all people, should cry off as the title of his undelivered paper was "Factors in dropping out: a British perspective".

Some of the continental researchers would doubtless have been happier to hear even less about the British perspective. The Swiss, for example, find it hard to relate to our agonising about the role of headteachers when most of their schools get by quite happily without them. And the Greeks could not understand why the British laughed when they were told that Slovenia, which hosts next year's conference, occupies a central position in Europe. We have not adjusted our mental maps of the Continent following the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and it is time we did.

This process is evidently beginning, however. "Did you have a good night out with the Albanians?" one Brit was heard to ask another.

The fact that virtually every paper was delivered in English added to the sense of Anglo-Saxon domination. But as Esperanto has never taken off and EERA cannot afford headphone translations it is difficult to envisage an alternative.

The language difficulties clearly prevented some researchers from doing justice to their work: "Along three years I have been working with a group of primary teachers trying to do better at schools," one Spanish researcher reported.

But several of the network groups that brought together researchers into vocational education, continuing professional development, assessment, and social justice and intercultural education, did have a valuable dialogue. Dr Wynne Harlen of the Scottish Council for Research in Education has sometimes been critical of researchers' conferences but she found Frankfurt stimulating. "Our network group has been able to have several three-hour sessions. We've really made some progress."

The improved grouping of papers also meant that researchers found it easier to concentrate on subjects they were interested in. Last year they complained that they had attended sessions where English, Czech and Vietnamese presenters were offering papers in different subjects and languages.

This year one of the main grouses was that papers were too descriptive and had insufficient theoretical underpinning. That's not a complaint that you would ever hear from a politician, or indeed many teachers. But it had some validity.

Henk Feelen, a sharp-suited youth work consultant from Maastricht, demonstrated the value of theory in a quirky talk on the last morning of the four-day conference.

He argued that there was no point trying to export educational ideas from one European country to another as if they were a lorryload of olives.

As Geert Hofstede had reasoned, you first had to understand the cultural differences between countries by applying five criteria. Were the countries fundamentally individualistic or collective? Did they have a short or long-term perspective? How would they rate on a feminine-masculine scale? Did they have a distinct social hierarchy? Were they inward-looking or prepared to consider challenging new ideas?

It was a good argument, well made. And it resonated with researchers who were still trying to come to terms with those headless Swiss schools.

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