Panoramic view from the ground;Research focus;Briefing

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
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.

The Slovenes, it seems, have a trainspotter's love of numbers. Any visitor to this relatively affluent northern corner of the former Yugoslavia is greeted with handfuls of brochures listing everything from the number of radio licences the state has issued (530,0l5) to the area covered by its oldest golf course (65 hectares).

Some of the 600 researchers who took part in last week's European Educational Research Association conference in the capital, Ljubljana, therefore knew that the highest mountain, Triglav, is precisely 2,864 metres above sea level. "Divinely dominating", the guidebooks call it. What masochistic mountaineer could resist it?

But the researchers didn't need to climb Triglav to get a panoramic view of Europe. That was available for the price of a beer in the Faculty of Education bar. As always, British bottoms occupied almost half the benches, but there was a strong Scandinavian and Dutch representation and more Eastern European researchers than at the three previous EERA conferences.

This year it was clearer than ever that the same winds of change that have been buffeting British education for years are also rattling school chimney-pots across the whole of Europe.

The Finns were exercised about the introduction of school performance tables, the Dutch and French were talking about programmes for deprived youth that have parallels with British initiatives, and the Swedes were discussing "beacon" schools.

And while the English were quoting the ubiquitous Michael Barber, the French were referring to his doppelganger, a certain M Barbier.

Europe is evidently becoming more homogeneous - and more Anglophone - by the day. No doubt it is partly because of the global economic trends discussed by John Elliott (see story opposite). But the media influence is also significant.

The Slovenes may be upholding some of their unique traditions - painting pictures on beehives, tucking into cabbage for breakfast, allowing their town clocks to chime loudly every 15 minutes all through the night and exposing themselves to an unhealthy amount of accordion music. But the television films they watch are American, Blue Peter is on one channel and (Lord) Melvyn Bragg is on another.

Melvyn was talking nasally above Slovenian subtitles but the Blue Peter crew was speaking unadulterated English. No problem for any Slovene under the age of 21, it appears.

No problem for any of the Northern European researchers either because they can splash around in Estuary English just as well as the natives. But the language barrier remains a problem for EERA. The French don't want to use English and stay away from these conferences. The Spanish and Portuguese are more willing but, unsurprisingly, struggle with rapidly-delivered presentations on arcane English topics such as key stage 1 assessment.

More use of the overhead projector and more explanation of key terms and personalities ("Who is this Krees Woodhead I hear about?") would be helpful - a point that EERA aims to impress on British presenters.

But by no means all the UK researchers were inconsiderate in this respect. David Bridges of the University of East Anglia demonstrated his mastery of understatement when he introduced a paper on Ethiopia with the words: "For the benefit of non-Ethiopians it is probably helpful to sketch a few features of the context of secondary teacher education in EthiopiaI" And to be fair, many of the British papers appeared to be models of clarity by comparison with some of the Southern European presentations which were more theoretical and made virtually unintelligible by dubious translations. The following paragraph was fairly typical of several papers: "It is important to avoid, in all circumstances, that - as G Larochelle says - the process of philosophy development becomes paradoxically the corollary of its limitation and that it may reach its effectiveness, limiting its questioning potentialities, gaining in normative power, which loses in problematological knowing."

Such passages made one wonder whether the journey to Slovenia had been worth it. The usual organisational problems that beset such conferences were a further frustration. And the closing buffet dinner in Ljubljana Castle would have been more enjoyable had there beena reasonable supply of food, plates and cutlery (I found three plums and a pear).

But the conference did at least provide food for thought. In the end, that is always more sustaining.

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