8th December 2000 at 00:00
THE SOCIAL WORLD OF PUPIL CAREER. By Andrew Pollard and Ann Filer. Continuum. pound;22.99. THE SOCIAL WORLD OF PUPIL ASSESSMENT. By Andrew Pollard and Ann Filer. Continuum. pound;16.99. Somewhere there must be a storage room crammed, floor to ceiling, with the archives of a project from which these two books have emerged - audio and videotapes, transcripts of interviews with teachers, pupils and parents, "field notes", research notebooks; all gathered over seven years of a longitudinal study in two primary schools.

They are the record of rare, dedicated labour. Moreover, they are only a part of Andrew Pollard's and Ann Filer's Identity and Learning programme, begun in 1987.

The authors (educational sociologists) describe their studies as ethnographic. So we enter the world of qualitative research, which promises alluring "thick description" and attempts to look at children through their lived experience.

These two studies belong with such established classics as Paul Willis's Learning to Labour: how working class kids get working class jobs and Shirley Brice Heath's Ways with Words. Our appetites are whetted by the undertaking to tell "the overall developing story of each child or class of pupils" and from these stories to distil "theoretical remodelling".

The Social World of Pupil Career recently won a Standing Conference on Studies in Education award. The text here, as we move into the sharply focused "strategic biographies" of four pupils seen throughout their primary years, is of compelling interest. But its very closeness arouses important reservations. These two researchers, with their confident grasp of sociological scholarship and their frequent general references to class, gender and ethnicity, do not even attempt to explain how they came to choose Greenside school in a very well-to-do suburb of a southern town, where parents provide music, tennis and riding lessons, computers and the like, home-tuition in maths and English and preparation for the entry exams of independent schools.

Even when we turn to Albert Park school, the research base for the other volume, the parents are skilled working class and lower-middle class. Why? The consequence of this serious limitation is a failure to confront the complex issues of hybrid identity even though a very narrow notion of identity is given such prminence.

Both books claim to study the social world of pupils, and we certainly get some powerful insights into that world.

Though the richness of this texture cannot be dismissed, what emerges, nevertheless, is entirely derived from interviews and diaries and these are not, and to some extent cannot, be entirely balanced by direct observation.

Many activities are named but seen only through the words of interviewees. The interviews themselves are said to be "semi- structured", "in depth" and "exploratory". We are given neither a full example nor a fuller explanation. The claim of the titles that the books present a "social world" is too grandiose. For instance, all the case-study children watch television and videos. But we never find out the nature of this experience. Why did it not come up in the interviews?

Thus, because of the nature of the research sources, we do not get a full picture of how the culture of the parents and of the area is reconstructed by the pupils. In spite of the gap, we can infer much from the citations, especially at key moments such as when a parent confronts the school with a Sunday Times article.

The authors make many attempts throughout these books to give them intellectual backbone by teasing out from their extensive data sets of concepts called "theoretical modelling" represented in diagrams, tables and the like. But they vary enormously in quality and some are no more than ad hoc common-sense categories or borrowings from sociological stock-in-trade.

Perhaps the worst example is the use of "coping strategies" to cover the whole of pedagogy.

The volume that deals with assessment shows this concept as embedded in everyday social practices rather than confined to tests, scores and league tables. The pursuit of objectivity they show us is an illusion. The themes here are formulated as questions - the who, what and how of assessment. One question is omitted - the why of current state-sponsored testing. The answer can only be political.

Both volumes are rounded off by discussions that take us far beyond the particularities of the research and lead finally to a plea for active learning and a set of matching goals. What a welcome voice in these times.

Harold Rosen is emeritus professor of the Institue of Education, University of London

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