Not much hot air despite talk of balloons;Briefing;Research Focus;BERA conference

4th September 1998 at 01:00
David Budge journeyed from shrimps to Schubert taking in a ceilidh on the way at this year's BERA conference. He reports on an event that mixed humour and seriousness - even allowing arch critic James Tooley his say

Queen's University Belfast witnessed two miraculous escapes last week.

The first involved a collection of priceless 2,200-year-old Greek artefacts which somehow survived intact after crashing to the floor of a display case in the visitors' centre. The second concerned another rarity: Professor James Tooley, author of the recent OFSTED report which claimed that many education research papers are flawed and partisan.

Professor Tooley, who is often described in precisely those terms himself, risked a mauling by addressing a seminar at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association. Incredibly, the Newcastle University professor emerged from the bear pit without a mark.

But then the often boyishly engaging Professor Tooley has honed his escape routine. His trick is to crack an egg or two over his own head before anyone thinks of lobbing one. So straight away he said he "liked" the claim that his report was a "triumph of inconsistency and bad faith".

He even admitted that it was indeed worthless (OFSTED is giving it away). But he got his own back on the chief inspector for that indignity with a neat between-the-ribs remark: "I wanted to produce a snapshot for interested people who don't know much about education research - someone like Chris Woodhead, for example."

Professor Tooley's luck didn't hold - he was later squashed steamroller-flat by a better-prepared Professor Stephen Ball of King's College London in a radio debate from the conference over the merits of selection by ability. But even so, it was all remarkably good-natured, like the rest of BERA '98.

Omagh had been on everyone's mind as the conference opened. The researchers had their own troubles, too, having been battered by not only the Tooley report but the Department for Education and Employment (which put a negative spin on last week's report on education research by the Institute for Employment Studies).

But it was easy to forget such concerns while sipping tea in a marquee on Queen's grassy quadrangle. The conference's unusually small scale contributed to the relaxed mood because researchers did not have to race from one end of the campus to another to attend sessions. This time any blisters were caused by dancing at the ceilidh rather than marching through endless corridors.

The fact that several key speakers showed that it is possible to be light-hearted about even serious subjects also helped. Jim Hillage, author of the new DFEE report, illustrated the mutual misunderstanding between researchers and teachers by telling an apocryphal story about a conversation he had had with a hot-air balloonist while walking his dog.

"Where am I?" the balloonist asked as he hovered over a field.

"You're 30ft above my head," Hillage answered.

"Oh, you must be a researcher," the balloonist replied sarcastically.

"And you must be in education" was Hillage's rejoinder, "because you don't know where you are, you don't know where you are going, but now it's my fault."

Inevitably, some of the speakers were less entertaining and there were the usual complaints about the low standard of some papers. But critics of education research would have found it harder than usual to point to impenetrable research reports dripping with references to Foucault.

Some papers were - how shall we put it? - rather marginal. An account from Wagga Wagga on pedagogical outsourcing in Australian higher education springs to mind. But there were also clutches of very relevant analyses of cross-community projects in Northern Ireland, the core curriculum, inspection, teacher stress, behaviour management, child abuse and setting.

None of this was of much interest to the mainstream media who only had eyes for Michael Reiss of Homerton, the Anglican vicar who has complained about boring textbook illustrations of the missionary position (see story on opposite page).

But even the Belfast journalists who gave the conference substantial coverage were yawningly uninterested in his second paper on how brine shrimps can be used to teach the facts of life.

They had bigger fish to fry, figuratively speaking. President Clinton was on his way and conspicuously large secret service agents were moving into the city centre.

Education research will not be out of the spotlight for long, however. Change - like autumn - is on its way.

Quotes of the conference

"Many male teachers hit the 'novelty socks stage' in their late 40s. They are either eccentric or deeply sad. Girls have more role models in teaching that they would want to emulate."

Male researcher commenting on the difficulty of attracting young men into primary teaching.

"Particularly noteworthy is that fully 38 per cent of the comments made by Year 5 boys when viewing brine shrimps are sex-related."

Sue Dale Tunnicliffe and Michael Reiss, of Homerton College, Cambridge, reporting on research into how shrimps and meal worms can be used in sex education and PSE lessons.

"You get taught useless things - in France you wouldn't really encounter situations where you had to say 'I have a sofa'."

Comment by second-year girl in Scottish secondary school interviewed by Jill Duffield of Stirling University.

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