A hunger for facts and filled rolls
The woman behind the till in Bath University's grocer's shop had been conducting her own research. "I've noticed that our different groups of customers buy different things. We had some cheap mugs and toothbrushes in for the Open University students, for example, but our own students wouldn't want that.
"The researchers, on the other hand, just want food. Only half-an-hour ago we had to deal with a verrrrrry upset Portuguese researcher who couldn't get one of the conference lunch tickets and came in thinking we had filled rolls for sale. We don't do them on Saturdays. It looks to me as if this conference has attracted more people than it can cater for."
She wasn't wrong. The organisers of the first European Conference on Educational Research gathering had been expecting 1,200 participants, but "we stopped counting at 1,300", according to a weary, but still cheerful, conference helper.
There was therefore some keen competition for dining hall seats, but most of the researchers, particularly the British, adapted quickly, being well used to competing for funding, if not food.
It did mean, however, that Professor James Calderhead, of Bath University, who had been planning the conference for the past 18 months, had to spend the entire weekend fielding requests for lunch tickets, finding beds for academics who had arrived unannounced or unaccommodated, and responding to emergencies (at least one professor conformed to the "absent-minded" stereotype by leaving the paper he was to deliver in the back of a taxi).
Another 600 papers that didn't go astray were presented during the four-day meeting of minds. Most were on the Big Issues that concern a growing number of European countries - school effectiveness, performance indicators, the education "market", inspection, reading and gender and racial equality problems - but a mind-numbing array of more esoteric subjects were also discussed in up to 20 simultaneous sessions.
A researcher from the University of Twente in The Netherlands spoke on "Educational communication: the important unimportance of learning effects", while Fritjof Sahlstrom, of Uppsala University in Sweden offered "Classroom interaction and 'footing' - 30 seconds of maths with class 8c and Erving Goffman".
There were papers from beyond the parted Iron Curtain too, such as Sara Tann's "Refracted perception of teaching and learning: the warp and weft of Polish student teacher experience". An exotically named Greek researcher, Aphrodite Xeromeritou, examined "Anxiety differences towards computers".
Some of the papers clearly suffered in the translation to near English. "The second correlation was between originality in TECP and TAEC (Orfot and Orsa respectively)," one foreign academic assured his audience. "The purpose of this correlation was to verify that different ways of expression measure differents aspects of creativity."
Other presentations - particularly those from the Dutch - impressed the cognoscenti. Professor Calderhead was, however, not too disappointed to be confined to his bunker while the intellectual sparks were flying upstairs. As first president of the European Educational Research Association his objective had been to provide a forum for as many of the continent's best researchers as possible.
He also wanted to put them in touch with potential users of research. To a certain extent this was achieved, because the conference attracted teachers and representatives of government and intergovernmental education agencies.
Findings that had not managed to cross national borders finally got an exit visa, too. "There's some fascinating work on maths going on in Hungary, for example, but few people have known about it until now," said Professor Calderhead.
EERA is already planning a second conference in Seville next year, but judging by the dearth of French, German and Italian researchers in Bath, the association is not yet a wholly representative European organisation. As Professor Calderhead explained, this is partly because several European countries, such as Germany, do not have a strong tradition of empirical enquiry into education.
None the less, pan-European bridges are being built, not only by EERA but by the computer. As the researchers were busy swapping e-mail numbers all weekend it seems certain that the Internet will fuel a surge in collaborative projects and enable findings to be disseminated much more quickly and widely than they have been in the past.
The Internet will never be able to offer the stimulation and networking opportunities that a conference does, but it does have one important advantage. It can be used without having to worry where your next lunch ticket will come from.