A scene of stark choices, tough objectives and ideas for a new way forward were presented last week to the European Educational Research Association in Slovenia. David Budge went along with 600 researchers to find food for thought.
EUROPE'S education researchers have been told that they face a stark choice as the millennium approaches. They can either serve the needs of unfettered global capitalism and the continent's labour market or help to design a new political and social order based on democracy and justice.
Many analysts would argue that it is possible to fulfil both objectives but Professor John Elliott of the University of East Anglia believes that the two aims are now incompatible.
The globalisation of markets and systems of production has made it extremely difficult for any country to control its economic growth or use market forces to establish a better social order, Professor Elliott told the conference.
Nevertheless, many researchers - such as those involved in school effectiveness and improvement - were still prepared to accept the "prevailing ideological apparatus" which stressed the importance of efficiency and assumed that economic growth was the key to the "good life".
In the 1960s, teachers and researchers had not been required to promote the economic conditions for wealth creation but rather the social conditions for its just distribution, he said. Today, however, education had become a managerially controlled system for transferring people into commodities that can be sold on the global labour market.
"In this context, educational research becomes an enquiry into the general and particular conditions for improving the performance of educational systems, " he said.
What was required, however, was more research that exposed the gulf between political rhetoric and reality.
There was also a need for what Professor Stephen Ball of King's College, London, had called "critical social researchers (who have) a vision of a moral order in which justice, equality and individual freedom are uncompromised by the avarice of the few".
Professor Elliott said that the deep ideological division between those researchers who were prepared to serve solely economic ends and those seeking greater social justice could not be bridged in the foreseeable future.
"The challenge for the European Educational Research Association is to acknowledge and accommodate conflicting 'research identities' and methodological antagonism among its membership," he said. "A permissive tolerance of such difference erodes critical debate between researchers and allows them to escape responsibility for the political and social consequences of the way they portray education."
"Living with ambiguity and contradiction: the challenges for educational research in positioning itself for the 21st century", by John Elliott, Centre for Applied Research in Education, University of East Anglia, Norwich