Academics get real

15th September 2000 at 01:00
David Budge finds delegates in a practical frame of mind at this year's policy-focused British Educational Research Association Conference in Cardiff.

THE tousle-haired Cardiff University student was wearing a white T-shirt that boasted: "Need help? I know everything". But he was disarmingly modest.

"Don't ask me what the capital of Albania is. They could prosecute me under the Trade Descriptions Act."

He was merely there to provide directions for any lost souls at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference. "To get from the registration desk to the seminar rooms in the Glamorgan building you go out this back door, across the road, through the gardens with the large war memorial, then across another road," he said helpfully. "You'll see a building with a red dragon on the top. Well that's not it. It's the one next door."

Finding a cup of coffee was even harder, at first. "We're not serving coffee until September 25," the woman in the students' union shop said with great assurance and minimal compassion. Thankfully, she was wrong.

No, things did not get off to a good start - especially for Dr Rob Walker of the University of East Anglia. He had prepared a state-of-the-art multi-media presentation for the keynote lecture that opened the conference. But as a computer let him down his audience was left to imagine the special effects that he was describing. "I've seen the future and it doesn't work," said one disgruntled researcher.

The conference dinner later that day also provoked complaints. The venue was magnificent - the National Museum and Gallery - but researchers who had been walking in the rain all day were not best pleased to discover that it was a stand-up buffet. "For pound;31, I do not expect to sit on the stairs!"

Some researchers worked off their frustrations during seminar debates. Stephen Gorard of Cardiff University went head-to-head with Alex Gibson of Exeter University over the best way to measure the changing social composition of schools.

James Tooley of Newcastle University vented his spleen on the "good, bad and ugly" aspects of the Government's citizenship education policy (88 words, out of 4,000, were devoted to the policy's good points).

And Elzabeth Burn of North London University continued to fight the class war with her poignant but funny account of a working-class Geordie academic's introduction to a South-east university. She recalled that when a lecturer colleague (who had not heard her speak) rashly accused her of being a typical white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired middle-class woman, she had replied: "Well, you must have bad eyes, Pet. My eyes are green and my hair's out of a bottle."

Her paper was, however, atypical. Most of the presenters focused on education topics that were directly relevant to either policy-makers or teachers. The Research Assessment Exercise, which determines institutional funding, may be malign in some respects but it has clearly concentrated a few minds.

Researchers' "productivity levels" also appear to have increased (even the paper on procrastination by Jean O'Callaghan of the University of Surrey Roehampton was completed in time for the conference). And most home-grown papers were relatively jargon-free compared to some of the foreign presenters' work.

It was therefore a pity that so few teachers attended the conference. They would have enjoyed hearing Alison Tomlin of King's College, London, describe how she taught infants to "count up to two" in the sandpit. And they would have been fascinated by some of the statistics. A London University team noted that one primary teacher was involved in up to 17 interactions a minute.

It would, however, be misleading to suggest that Britain's education researchers have been forced into line by their powerful critics. They listened fairly respectfully to a presentation on the new National Education Research Forum that the Government has established to point the way forward. But many remain uneasy about the increasing control that ministers are exerting over the research sector.

They are pleased that their work is being accorded more respect in Whitehall, but Michael Bassey, BERA's academic secretary, now believes that researchers deserve a bigger say in education policy-making.

That may be so, but as BERA members discovered again at their own conference dinner, even though they are brought in from the cold, they do not necessarily get a seat at the table.

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