'Lenny Henry' stands up for freedom;Research focus

10th September 1999 at 01:00
THE sun shone. The dons glowed. And enough paper was produced to eradicate a small rainforest.

Whether much of what was presented was worth the dead trees it was written on proved to be a theme of the British Educational Research Association's hot, but rarely heated, annual conference at Brighton.

Peter Mortimore set the tone in his presidential address, asking his packed and perspiring audience "does education research matter?"

He then reassured them that it did. Mostly. But that it had to matter more and be more relevant, without losing its academic freedom and integrity.

Responses to his lecture were varied. Delegates thought the content "well-balanced" and compared his style of speaking to "Lenny Henry" (referring to Henry's role as a headteacher turning around a failing school in the BBC series Hope and Glory) or "Tony Blair".

But it seemed that after the twin-pronged attacks last year of the Hillage and James Tooley reports on educational research quality, the conference this year was a more confident and upbeat affair.

Professor Gerald Grace, the conference's after-dinner speaker, entertained his colleagues with an account of a leaked Government, OFSTED and Teacher Training Agency document entitled The state of educational research: strategy for the discreditation and destabilisation of existing research (subtitled Tame The Buggers).

He concluded by reiterating Professor Mortimore's call for researchers to guard their independence and avoid cosying up to government, and urged them "not to let the buggers get you down".

Professor Barry McGaw, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's deputy director of education, ended his keynote speech (on the uses and limitations of the measuring tools available to researchers) by telling his audience to guard against attempts to misuse their findings. They ought not to keep quiet in the face of misinterpretation, he said.

When it came to the conference papers themselves, it was hard to distinguish any common or over-riding themes among the deluge. Things were much busier than at last year's smaller-scale, more intimate affair in Belfast.

A handful of teachers broke higher education's stranglehold on the conference, presenting papers at seminars on teacher-based research projects also involving colleges and education authorities.

Information and communications technology - both as curriculum subject and teaching tool - seemed an increasingly fruitful source of research, with daily sessions lined up for the computer-


The Government's social-inclusion policies also generated a raft of papers on exclusion, inclusive practices, education action zones, pupil exclusions, alternative curricula and behaviour management.

Delegates voted with their feet on Secondary Teacher Education in Ethiopia by not turning up. The unfortunate presenters were saved from retiring early to the bar by the arrival of a female delegate interested in working for

Voluntary Service Overseas in Eritrea.

The crowd-pullers included Towards a Primary Pedagogy, chaired by Caroline Gipps of Kingston University (standing room only, and some of that in the corridor), and a session featuring Government guru Michael Barber.

Professor Barber, head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit, reassured conference-goers that research was informing Government policy. Manchester University's work on learning support assistants -- presented at the conference - was one example.

However, the paper least likely to appeal to pragmatic policy-

makers was probably one written by Sarah Fletcher and Jack Whitehead, of Bath University. The paper was entitled How are we improving our teaching as teacher educators as we research ourselves as living contradictions and multiple selves in our educative relationships with our students and social contexts?

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