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Research Focus

Seafood is good for the brain, they say, but fortunately the best of Britain's researchers were not relying on the potted shrimp for inspiration last weekend. David Budge introduces a two-page report from the annual BERA conference.

Until last weekend, Britain's educational researchers would have said that their nastiest experience of 1996 was the Teacher Training Agency lecture in which Professor David Hargreaves denounced much of their work as "second-rate". But then they encountered the potted shrimp.

The first course of the meal they were served on arriving at Lancaster University for their annual conference appeared to have been prepared by a chef who cared even less about their wellbeing than Professor Hargreaves. The forks went in, and the conversation stopped. What had the shrimps been potted in? Chip fat?

Several of the conference-goers disappeared soon afterwards, no doubt for a slap-up meal at the nearest motorway service station, but they should have known better. No one attends British Educational Research Association conferences for the food. The really appetising "meat" is always in the papers and showcase lectures.

Michael Apple, the American professor who stomps the conference circuit railing against the neo-liberal emphasis on the market and the neo-conservative attachment to traditional "values", made probably the biggest impression this year. It isn't often that BERA members are sworn at by visiting speakers (albeit for rhetorical effect), and they appeared to enjoy the experience.

There were also stimulating symposia and individual papers on special needs, assessment, literacy, early years, inspection and the marketisation of education, and the school effectiveness and improvement travelling circus came to town, too, with all its leading artistes.

Classroom teachers would have been disappointed to find that although the conference attracted 750 researchers there was not a single paper on class size. Another pertinent issue, the education of ethnic-minority children, did, however, receive more attention than it has in recent years. It is also heartening that more British Asian and African-Caribbean academics are taking part in the conference. But as one of the round-table sessions on ethnic-minority underachievement was attended by only one white academic, and she left during the presentation, there are no grounds for complacency.

However, it is true that several other round-table sessions attracted low turn-outs, partly because they were held in a room that was half-a-day's march from the lecture-theatre complex.

By contrast, the philosophy of education lectures drew flabbergastingly large audiences (up to 80) and no one, not even those with the most profound philosophical insights, could really fathom why. "I think it may be because people are fed up with unsuccessful quick-fix solutions, like the national curriculum," one academic surmised. "We're now looking for more meaningful answers." Marian Sainsbury and Steve Sizmur, authors of a paper on key stage 1 assessment, appeared to be doing the same thing, judging by its clever, punning sub-heading of "2B or not 2B". But they did not win the "best paper title" laurel. That should probably go to the University College of Wales team who presented: "Daps, dykes and five-mile hikes: pupil stereotypes of secondary PE".

As for the bravest paper of the conference, that was undoubtedly Joyce Ferguson's "Going native", on the problems she encountered while trying to carry out research in a further education college that was blighted by staff cuts. "I, too, had become so demoralised, like my . . . colleagues . . . that I no longer even tried to tape-record interviews," the Chichester Institute of Higher Education lecturer wrote.

Judging by the mood of the conference, educational researchers are not as demoralised as FE lecturers. But Professor Hargreaves's criticisms have left a bad taste on their tongues that will linger far longer than even the potted shrimp. As the BERA leadership have deduced, a counter-propaganda campaign, coupled with the recognition that there is room for improvement, should be the best form of mouth-wash.

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