Euro-sceptics can buzz off

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Attending the European Conference on Educational Research can be hard work, but it pays dividends. David Budge reports.

"THE European Educational Research Association reminds me of a bumblebee. From a scientific point of view, it shouldn't be able to fly. But somehow it does."

Sverker Lindblad, EERA's Swedish president, was speaking at his association's annual conference at Edinburgh University. But his ruminations were unceremoniously interrupted by the caretaker. "Can ye finish up please, Okaaaay," he bellowed in broad Scots as he threw open the lecture-room doors.

Sverker had been due to wind up the conference's business meeting by 6pm. But it was now two minutes past and, unless someone was prepared to pay the keys-rattler some overtime, the fanciful analogies would have to stop.

The Scandinavians and English laughed. But the French researchers were angry. It was bad enough that the university was charging EERA for the hire of the premises (apparently, this wouldn't happen in France). But now the caretaker was throwing them on to the street.

However, it all helped to expand their inter-cultural understanding - which was the aim of the event. "You thought that all Scotsmen wore kilts and had a Burns-like love of their fellow man? Think again, Henri."

This year there was more scope for such insights than ever because almost 1,000 researchers from 46 countries registered for the conference. But, as Professor Lindblad suggested, EERA remains as oddly-proportioned as the portly bumblebee.

Although France and Germany each had 25-strong contingents this year, the association is still too dependent on the UK and Scandinavia. Finland sent 82 researchers this year but Italy only four.

t is EERA's 22 specialist networks - focusing on areas such as children at risk, information technology, and student assessment - that help to bind the six-year-old association together.

The assessment group enjoyed a substantial coup this year, persuading Dame Marie Clay, of Reading Recovery fame, to address a session on early-years schooling.

Some of her audience disagreed profoundly with one of her arguments - she contends that it is foolish to test children's knowledge of letters on entry to school; they believe it would be foolish not to, as some infants can already read by this stage. But they were too polite to say so.

The 11th-hour cancellation of several sessions prompted more vocal protests. But experienced EERA conference-goers take such frustrations - and the inevitable language problems - in their stride.

They know there are always compensations. The most arcane subjects: "The idea of method in teaching and doing research. A post-colonial view on the roots of educational theory after Pierre de la Rainee (1515-72)" can prove riveting. Even ho-hum presentations offer fascinating facts (a section of the brain known as Broca's Area allows us to formulate grammatical sentences - - sometimes). And the audience comments are often perceptive: "One man's citizenship education is another's political indoctrination."

Such apercus help to dull the pain when you find yourself trapped in a conference session that is exploring the "diversity of utility functions" at 5.30pm on a Saturday evening.

Why are bolshie caretakers, like taxis, never around when you really need them?

The full text of some of the EERA conference papers can be found on the web at: www.leeds.ac.ukeducol


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