Last rites still a long way off

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Researchers may not have helped out former education secretary Charles Clarke, but the members of the British Educational.

When Charles Clarke was education secretary he used to complain that research never gave him any useful advice.

Geoff Whitty, the director of the institute of education at London university, was therefore somewhat taken aback when Mr Clarke approached him at a function shortly before he left for the Home Office and said he wanted to pay his "respects" to educational research.

"The sombre tone in which he said it made me think he probably meant last respects," Professor Whitty noted wryly in his presidential address to the British Educational Research Association conference. Bera is, however, far from funereal at present. This year's conference was an upbeat affair despite its setting, the University of Glamorgan campus in Pontypridd, a depressed Valleys town.

The huge conference marquee defied the weekend's severe weather warnings, and there were "feelgood" keynote speeches from Professor Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, and Jane Davidson, the Welsh Assembly education minister.

Professor Diamond buttered up his audience by acknowledging that British education research was world-class. As his organisation is a key research-funder, that went down very well indeed.

Ms Davidson also proved a crowd-pleaser by emphasising the importance of research-informed education policy. Wales is not Shangri-la in that respect. As Professor Richard Daugherty, from the University of Wales Aberystwyth, pointed out in the September 9 issue of TES Cymru, the Welsh now have only one higher education institution fully funded to carry out education research.

But there was some substance to her claims. After all, Professor John Furlong, the retiring Bera president, has been conducting an investigation into initial teacher training for Ms Davidson's department.

The real business of the conference, of course, was not the keynote speeches but the presentation of more than 800 papers.

Relatively few merited the "hyper-rationalist-technicist" label coined by Sharon Gewirtz, from King's College, London. In plain English, that means the "What works" research that politicians say they value. Nevertheless, many papers contained useful insights and generated productive discussions.

How much of this research will influence government policy in the way that, say, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study has done remains to be seen.

Professor Whitty recalled the sage conclusion of Carol Weiss, a US academic: "It takes an extraordinary concatenation of circumstances for research to influence policy directly. (Rather) research helps people reconsider issues, helps them think differently, helps them re-conceptualise what the problem is and how prevalent it is, helps them discard some old assumptions, and punctures old myths."

It can also be rather entertaining. Pamela Cowan, of Queen's university in Belfast, delivered a paper entitled "Merrily moodling along or in a muddle? An evaluation of the experiences of PGCE students using a moodle environment."

Professors Trevor Corner and Peter Newby, of Middlesex university, pointed to a hitherto unreported drawback of PFI school-building projects - "wolf-whistling and other unacceptable behaviours (by building workers)".

And student researcher Fran Riga, of Cambridge university, offered a paper on astronomy revealing 40 per cent of 14 and 15-year-olds believe aliens have visited Earth.

As Oscar Wilde said: "It's a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information."

* david.budge@tes.co.uk

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