Big cat Hargreaves no longer walks by himself

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Rudyard Kipling's feline was famously a loner, but the QCA chief now has many comrades in his crusade for research that is relevant to the classroom. David Budge reports from the BERA conference in Leeds

Education researchers have a bizarre relationship with David Hargreaves, the one-time Cambridge University academic who now heads the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

He has caused them great offence, but they remain fascinated by him. Like a group of inquisitive children gathered around a large tabby cat, they have an irresistible urge to hold out their hands and invite one more scratch.

His 1988 address to the British Educational Research Association conference prompted a walk-out. In 1996 he damned much of their work as "second-rate". But Saturday morning found him back at the BERA conference in Leeds University facing an audience of more than 500 researchers. "So what are you expecting of me this time?" he purred mischievously. The claws flashed but were slowly retracted.

It is Hargreaves who has stimulated much of the recent debate about the nature and purpose of education research. He was also the architect of the "national" forum that has just published its generally well-received strategy for research in England (as Ruth Leitch of Queen's University Belfast pointed out, the English have not adjusted to post-devolutionary Britain and continue to use the word "national" indiscriminately).

Some researchers see the forum as a frightening example of centralised planning and want more freedom to carry out "blue skies" research. In fact Hargreaves welcomes such research, though not necessarily by the current crop of researchers. But he dismissed complaints about central control. "It is not enough to assert the right of education researchers ... to do whatever they think best: that is an irresponsible individualism."

This time, no one walked out of his lecture or scratched back. A flick through the conference programme helped to explain why. True, there was a symposium on "control, hegemony and the threat to academic freedom in educational research". But most papers addressed issues of direct concern to policy-makers or teachers.

This has been the case for some years now but the view that research should really make a difference to schools seemed more pronounced this year.

West Sussex teacher Jill Wilson insisted that teachers must no longer be seen as "passengers in the research vehicle. We want to be co-drivers." And one young researcher asked a presenter a question that some still see as heretical: "What are you going to do when you have the results and how is it going to change things?" Perhaps it was the World Trade Center atrocity that helped to generate this more earnest approach. "We mustn't fiddle while Rome burns,'' said Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon of Durham University. It would, however, be wrong to characterise this year's BERA conference as sober and subdued.

As always, the researchers spent a disproportionate amount of time trudging up and down Escher-like staircases that seemed to have no beginning or end. But the quality of many of the papers and the wealth of anecdote made the effort worthwhile (Did you know that the first "fresh start" school in America changed its name from the Sir Francis Drake School to the Malcolm X Academy?). The hyper-efficiency of the green-jacketed Scotswomen who helped to organise the conference was another bonus - particularly for those who had endured the chaos of the European research gathering in Lille a week earlier. Researchers who took a wrong turning while walking to the conference dinner found a green jacket emerging from the shrubbery to point them smilingly on their way. Others who had lost tickets were soothed and given another one.

It was almost like being nursed in a long-stay residential home. But, for once, no one was complaining.

The full text of David Hargreaves' speech can be found at the BERA website www.bera.ac.uk

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