Shy and retiring at the peak of her powers;Briefing;Research focus;Interview;Wynne Harlen

28th May 1999 at 01:00
David Budge talks to Wynne Harlen who stepped down as director of the Scottish research council this week.

Alan Whicker once claimed that the construction crane was the national bird of Hawaii. The same could be said of Scotland at present. Well Edinburgh, anyway.

Now that the Parliament is in situ there is a new buzz about Auld Reekie. The builders are enjoying a mini-boom, and even the taxi-drivers admit they are making money.

It is therefore a little sad that Wynne Harlen should be retiring now as director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education.

She has presided over SCRE during the toughest period of its history, while the council's cushion of Scottish Office funding has been progressively reduced and it has had to succeed in the tough world of competitive bidding. Now she is leaving before she can taste the fruits of Scotland's relative independence. But as she herself is a Sassenach, in some respects her timing is perfect.

Professor Harlen recognises that SCRE may have greater opportunities to influence the Scottish educational agenda in future. However, the former professor of science education at Liverpool University can take comfort from the knowledge that she has had a direct line to the Scottish Office's most senior education advisers throughout her nine-years in office.

"Because Scotland is a small country you do feel your research is going to have an impact. Here we can get face-to-face with the decision-makers. They're genuinely interested in what we're doing," she says.

Can she single out the SCRE research that has been most influential? She is loath to claim too much as most of the 30 studies that SCRE's 15 staff undertake each year are relatively small-scale and therefore have to be considered alongside other research. Nevertheless, she believes that the council's reports on drugs education, disabled students in higher education, and the five to 14 curriculum have been particularly influential.

Her own specialist areas are science and assessment but she co-authored another of SCRE's well-received recent documents on setting and streaming. She is also proud of her research into primary teachers' understanding of science.

On occasions, Professor Harlen has played the part of the jet-setting academic, advising the Slovenian and Polish education services and criss-crossing the Atlantic. But as SCRE's chief administrator she has had to spend more time in her office at the bottom of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

Managing, fund-raising and tendering have been her main responsibilities. And it is only when the conversation switches to the last of these topics that some strain shows on her face.

"Competition for contracts is tight and people want quick research results," she says. "A few years ago I would have said we wouldn't want to go for projects of under nine months - now we accept nine-week studies. There is therefore a danger of spending more on the bidding process than you could earn from the contract."

In her ideal world there would be centres of excellence and their individual areas of expertise would be respected. Hence no more destructive competition.

In Wynne's World teachers would also be allowed some time away from the hurly-burly of the classroom so that they could delve into research and reflect on the nature of their job.

"There's gold in there," she says, pointing at the books on diagnostic assessment in her cupboard. "They could be of invaluable help to teachers but they are too busy to get to them."

She has also been frustrated by the failure of SCRE's Learning Throughout Life Appeal, which aimed to raise funds for an investigation into the factors that promote learning. The appeal had a flashbulb-launch last year at a dinner attended by the great and the good - but the Scottish industrialists kept their cheque-books shut.

On balance, though, she is chipper, or as near to it as a shy, sensitive person can be. During her "retirement" she intends to see more of her son and daughter - Professor Harlen was widowed 12 years ago - but she will also be acting as a consultant. She is associated with the Exploratorium, San Francisco's hands-on science museum, and a Boston research council. Then there is the work for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which has asked her to help design an international science test.

"I still feel I have a lot to offer," she says. "In fact the irony is that I feel I am doing the job well - and yet I am about to leave. Isn't that always the way?" The Taking a Closer Look series, which covers maths, science and English, is available from SCRE. 0131 557 2944.

Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries (750 words max) to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Tel 0171 782 3276. E-mail

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