Academics ready for battle

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Jon Slater previews the topics to be discussed at next week's Edinburgh conference.

School workforce reform, parental choice and the search for the dialectic will become hot topics of debate next week in Scotland's capital city.

More than 900 of the UK's leading education researchers will gather in Edinburgh to share their work at the British Educational Research Association annual three-day conference.

Debates range from the controversial, "Measuring standards over time", to the confusing "Educational management in managerialist times: exploring the problem of textual apologism".

Even more exotic presentations include "Evolution and the structure of human sexuality" and an analysis of the effect of Picasso's art works on children.

As well as UK academics, the conference will be attended by experts from countries as diverse as Japan, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates.

The British educational research community is still reeling from the decision to axe funding for 19 departments and cut cash for others based on their rating in the Government's research assessment exercise.

Professor John Furlong, incoming Bera president, will tell the conference that the policy of concentrating research in a few elite institutions could endanger the drive to raise standards in schools.

He will argue that the Government's centralist approach encourages a focus on large-scale research projects but discourages smaller projects which can be helpful for classroom teachers.

"We need research capacity across the UK, not just in a small number of centres," he told The TES.

One paper likely to cause a stir will be presented by Professor Stephen Gorard of Cardiff university. He will attack the commonly-held view that the British schools system is now one of the most socially segregated in the world.

Pupils in the UK are less likely to be separated according to family wealth, parental occupation or reading ability than their European counterparts, he will tell fellow academics.

Professor Gorard will argue that the much discussed "long tail of under-achievement" in Britain's schools is in fact the result of top students performing better than those in other countries.

Critics who say parental choice increases segregation are looking for an explanation where none is needed. "This greater polarisation by parental occupation does not exist in the UK. Something that does not exist cannot, therefore, be the result of choice policies," he will say.

Even the poorest 10 per cent of UK pupils do better than the average score of some other developed countries.

But he warns that the increase in "minority" schools such as specialists, faith and Welsh language schools could increase social segregation.

Professor Gorard's findings are based on the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment carried out by the Organisation for EconomicCo-operation and Development.

It suggested that social class has more impact on academic achievement in the UK than in most other countries.

Another notable paper, by American academic J Davidson will examine how a 16-year-old, accomplished jazz and classical pianist who had written and illustrated a children's book and won a contract to illustrate two more, failed to qualify for the "gifted and talented" programme at her school.

Perhaps the school had taken advice from Sarah Fletcher of the University of Bath and J Hewitt, an independent consultant. They are hosting a session on the role of humour in the classroom, how children react to different types of jokes and how laughter can help them to learn.

Analysis 22 Abstracts and papers are available on www.bera.ac.uk

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