Maureen O'Connor reports from last week's international conference of educational sociologists. Educational sociologists are an endangered species, at least in teacher education. But even as this was confirmed by survey results in the journal Educational Studies, which suggest that in some universities it has become a "subversive" and underground subject, the survivors, meeting at their international conference at Sheffield University last week, were in surprisingly optimistic form.
It was time to get down to some serious policy-making before the election of a new government, Dr Jack Demaine of Loughborough University said in his opening address. He clearly anticipated that the electorate would soon see off the party which be believes has been both overtly and covertly responsible for the marginalisation of his subject in the training of teachers.
Ivan Reid and Frank Parker, also from Loughborough, paint a gloomy picture in their paper "Whatever happened to the sociology of education in teacher education?". Teacher education's commitment to produce "reflective educated professionals", they claim, has been replaced by a drive to produce trained deliverers of the national curriculum.
The change has been fuelled, they argue, by political dogma of the sort which alleged that sociology should be removed from teacher education courses in order to "improve the intellectual and moral environment" in which would-be teachers are taught.
But the subject has also been more insidiously undermined by ambiguity from official bodies such as the Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which expected students to be prepared for pupils' "diversity of ability, behaviour, social background and ethnic and cultural backgrounds," but failed to specify the means. Left to the fashionable lottery of "permeation" throughout the curriculum, Reid and Parker say, subjects can be trivialised or simply disappear altogether.
Their survey of teacher education courses revealed that in 25 per cent, sociology of education had disappeared completely as a named discipline, in another 25 per cent it was being taught under a different label, for instance "equal opportunities", and in a further 25 per cent there was some limited reference to sociological perspectives on courses dealing with issues such as curriculum or equality. Only at master's level does the subject survive as a significant part of teacher education. Staff numbers are inevitably declining as educational sociologists retire and are not replaced.
Comments in the survey from individual universities were often desperate: "The sociology of education is dead in the water. Policy analysis is the nearest we get to straight sociology."
"The PGCE teaching in sociology is derisory - one session on equal opportunities (race, gender and class)."
In the long run, Reid and Parker conclude, the subject may only survive in non-teacher education courses and institutions, where there is growing interest in educational studies as a non-professional area of study.
But this, Reid and Parker argue, would cut the discipline off not only from its main audience in the schools, but also from practitioners with easy and continuous access to classroom experience and understanding. In that case the subject might survive as an intellectual discipline but would be of much less use to the practitioners whose working lives it has always claimed to illuminate. It would also leave teachers without any perspective on the wider issues which affect their pupils and their schools.
"Whatever happened to the Sociology of Education in teacher education?" Ivan Reid and Frank Parker, Educational Studies, Volume 21, Number 3."The politics of identity and the identity of sociology", Jack Demaine