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Lives, damned lives

Stephen Thomas on how to use coursework research to make students better sociologists at A-level

My blood simmers when I hear those at the GNVQ frontier dismissing A-level as arid, rarefied and academic. Despite one-eyed education policies, things have moved on. In most sociology syllabuses, there is a new emphasis on skills, methodology and firsthand research which has put students in closer touch with the world outside the textbook .

The coursework option has had a liberating effect on the curriculum and helped students get to grips with methodology and perspectives as well as the substantive topics on A- level syllabuses. It has made them better sociologists. At the same time, they have been able to develop the skills needed to set up visits, interviews and placements, cope with unfamiliar people and situations, manage their time effectively and solve a range of logistical problems.

There are pitfalls. We have all been faced with that awfully predictable project which says in effect: "a not too carefully constructed sample of my friends suggests that. . . ." The soft option of the poorly executed questionnaire-based survey needs to be guarded against. Diverse methodolgy, on the other hand, can lead to exemplary surveys. For instance one of my students, in investigating under-age drinking, used questionnaires supplemented with interviews, 26 drink diaries kept by a sample of young people, as well as an observation study of drinking behaviour and publicans' treatment of under-age customers.

More challenging research methods such as observation or participant observation are often neglected, even though they can produce some absorbing findings. One student has just finished trying to apply Goffman's insights into behaviour in public places, concepts such as "civil inattention", "front and back regions", "focused and unfocused interaction", by carrying out observation in a church, the High Street and other settings. In what amounted to a miracle of time management, one of last year's students combined her regular drinking sessions in local pubs with a genuinely interesting participant observation study of male and female body language.

The recent Office for Standards in EducationFurther Education Funding Council report on Guidance 16-19 criticised schools and colleges for making too little use of students' work-related experiences in other than vocational courses. Yet there is tremendous potential for using work experience, work shadowing and work visits as a focus for sociology coursework. One student spent a week's work experience at Sun Life Assurance to study gender in the work-place. Three days' work experience at a private old people's home gave one A-level student a focus for some covert observation of the interaction between staff and residents. In each case the arrangements for these activities were made by the students themselves, something that many of them found a challenge.

Courts and industrial tribunals offer good research opportunities. One of my students has been visiting the crown and magistrates' courts to examine the gender distribution of roles in the legal system as part of a study of women and the law. Tribunals are good places to see the realities of equal opportunities, sexual harassment and other industrial relations issues being thrashed out at first hand.

In dealing with tricky ethical issues, an A-level research study gives students the chance to develop their social skills. One steered a deft course through seven detailed interviews with young people whose parents had divorced or separated, producing a sensitive and discreet account of their feelings. Another had to negotiate the head's permission before distributing a questionnaire to parents about the effectiveness of the school's AidsHIV programme.

For the student who wanted to carry out a series of self-report studies to look at unreported crime among 16 to 18-year-olds, confidentiality was a key issue. It was essential that his respondents were reassured about this if his findings were to have any validity. He destroyed the raw data, changed the names of his respondents when the study was written up, disguised their case histories and assured them that their anonymity would be preserved. In this way he convincingly uncovered an astonishing range of out-of-school deviant activity.

The British Sociological Association's guidelines on ethical practice offer useful pointers. The researcher has a responsibility to "explain as fully as possible, in terms meaningful to the participants, what the research is about, who is undertaking it, why it is being undertaken and how it is to be disseminated". If there are doubts about a student's choice of research topic, advice should be sought from the exam board and parental consent obtained.

With the opportunity which coursework gives to deal with the social world at first hand, to confront realities other than the vocational, sociology has a distinctive contribution to make. When gnvq courses are trying to fit young people into society at a particular time and place, into business, tourism or social care, it is crucial that they are also given the chance to stand back from the short-term demands of the economy. They need to look critically at institutions, evaluate the effects of different social and economic policies and value the importance of carefully collected evidence.

The irony is that while the vocational curriculum at 16-19 is moving towards independent learning, problem-solving and the development of core skills, A-levels are being dragged backwards by the 20 per cent restriction on coursework.

o Useful resources: Doing Sociology: A Practical Guide, by Lee Harvey and Morag MacDonald (Macmillan); articles in The Sociology Review by Ann Clynch, AEB coursework moderator, November 1991, and Steve Walker, September 1993; and, the best source of ready-made classroom materials, Peter Langley's Managing Sociology Coursework, Pounds 29.50, which is photocopiable (Connect Publications, Cooksbridge House, Cooksbridge, Lewes, BN8 4SR) Stephen Thomas is head of sociology at Castle School, Avon, and an honorary vice-president of the Association of Teachers of Social Sciences

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