Teachers' font of knowledge

12th May 2000 at 01:00
The Scottish Executive is axing its grant to the Scottish Council for Research in Education, raising fears for the future of its non profit-making services. Fay Young reports.

Where do homeless children do their homework? How does a tired teacher get a class of fidgety nine-year-olds to concentrate on their work? Why does a streetwise 14-year-old suddenly decide it's time to be nice to her mother?

The questions are drawn from studies of the effects of homelessness, physical exercise in the classroom and drug education at secondary schools that are in the pipeline at the Scottish Council for Research in Education. Many of the findings have potential consequences for children, parents, teachers and policymakers.

Since it was founded in 1928, SCRE has been Scotland's central source of information on educational research with unique responsibility for communicating all research findings in Scotland. But it is about to lose its special relationship with the Scottish Executive. In March, director Valerie Wilson, having turned her inherited budget deficit into a surplus, was shocked to receive a fax announcing that the annual grant of pound;338,000 is to be withdrawn.

For the next three years, SCRE can negotiate for a yearly service contract to cover the costs of disseminating information to schools and briefing ministers. From 2003 it is to become completely self-financing and dissemination becomes a free-for-all.

The change raises new questions. If SCRE ceases to be Scotland's national centre for educational research, what will happen to all the information it has been collecting and distributing to teachers, educationists and parents for more than 70 years? How will anyone know what is there? Who will attempt to sort the tangle of data created by diverse, competitive research?

Meanwhile, it is business as usual at the SCRE offices in St John's Street, Edinburgh. Outside a spring storm is blowing. Inside the noticeboard is gathering messages of support. Letters from MSPs join those from academics, trade unionists and one from the local authority body COSLA, emphasising the need for a coherent national strategy on education research.

At 10.30am the SCRE staff meet, as they do every day, for tea and coffee around the long table in the boardroom. There's quite a buzz.

Janet Powney, just back from delivering a paper on moral dilemmas in drug education to an international teacher education conference in Annapolis in the United States, catches up with the news. Small, energetic and dryly humorous, Ms Powney is responsible for managing much of what she calls the "quirkier" research at SCRE.

Her team has recently finished a feasibility study of the Edinburgh Rocks basketball team's health promotion in secondary schools on behalf of Scotland Against Drugs. Now they are completing a much bigger two-year survey for SAD on in-service training in drugs education for primary school teachers.

They are also more than half way through evaluating an imaginative Dutch health programme for primary schools to see if it will transfer happily to primaries in Scotland and Wales.

They have scooped Diana, Princess of Wales Trust funding for a pound;100,000 project providing support for 12 to 18-year-olds suffering bereavement. And there is the much smaller survey to inform the Tranent social inclusion project about the effects of homelessness on schoolchildren in East Lothian.

These projects have two things in common. First, they are full of human interest. Second, they all fit under the obliging umbrella of personal and social education in the school curriculum. Everything which could conceivably be called a "life skill" is bundled under that umbrella: sex, drugs, career choices, diet, family and other relationships (with or without Section 28). When the support pack on bereavement is produced for guidance teachers, you may be sure that will go into PSE too, all to be dealt with in one hour a week of the crowded school timetable.

That worries Ms Powney, because PSE is not assessed. While achievements in maths, literacy and science are measured, no one is assessing what happens in PSE, yet the health and well-being of children inevitably influences the way they perform in academic subjects. "We just don't know the effects these studies are having on children because there is no long-term research going on," says Ms Powney. It seems a clear case for a cross-reference approach to educational research.

At the moment teachers can rely on SCRE to let them know what is going on in educational research, both at home and abroad. But what will happen when the service contracts come to an end? Who will take on the task of the non profit-making activities such as services to schools, a teacher research network and updating the website? That, says SCRE, is where the bulk of Scottish Executive's pound;338,000 goes every year.

According to the SCRE chairman, Bill Furness, "that funding enables SCRE to provide a national clearing house for research (whether undertaken by itself or others), to interpret research findings in the context of Scottish education needs, to advise ministers on research priorities and to disseminate research results to teachers and policymakers".

The grant represents around 30 per cent of SCRE's annual income. Most of the rest comes from self-supporting research contracts funded by an increasing spread of public and private bodies, including the Scottish Executive. Many have to be won against fierce competition.

SCRE is not complaining about that or the need to demonstrate value for money. But it does want the grant. "We don't have a core," says Ms Wilson. "We use that grant as a core so that we can provide these services."

A new north-south divide is emerging. Scotland seems bent on leaving supply of wider educational research to the demands of the market place, while in England the Department for Education and Employment has announced new investment in a national strategy for research. This is based on a review which noted that too much research was small scale and that "actions and decisions of policymakers and practitioners were insufficiently informed by research".

Back at her desk, Ms Powney catches up with the post that has piled up in her absence. She prints out e-mail messages from primary teachers in Wales writing to say how they are getting on with the Dutch exercise programme, The Class Moves. Kevin Lowden, her co-researcher, produces a pile of log books giving daily accounts of how teachers are squeezing the 10-minute exercises into their timetable.

Different projects present different challenges and often provide a new way of looking at a familiar subject. Consider the success of the Edinburgh Rocks basketball team, who toured four Glasgow secondary schools on behalf of SAD. "The researchers were beautifully cynical to start with," says Edinburgh Rocks director Ian Reid.

Promoting both healthy living and basketball, the sportsmen turned out to be natural teachers, commanding respect. In just one session (20 minutes of talk, 20 minutes of sport) at each school, they made an extraordinary impact on several pupils. One boy who never passed school tests said that after he listened to the players he decided to work harder. The next week he passed his first test.

One girl said that the players made her think about how she treated her mother. She was now trying to respect her mother more by understanding her point of view.

Although the most sceptical students (the drug users, smokers and drinkers) were harder to impress, there was an enthusiastic reaction from most of the 523 S2 pupils who took part in the pilot project. It demonstrated the impact of credible role models.

The report on the scheme was specially produced for SAD, so the findings are not likely to reach a wide audience. Yet such reports often contain fascinating glimpses of real life. For example, Ms Powney's team suggests that basketball players would benefit from briefings on gang culture and substance abuse peculiar to schools.

The Tranent project interviews with homeless children have highlighted some poignant details. "There are practical problems, like where you do your homework when the family lives in a bedsit?", says Ms Powney. "But there are sad things too. Homeless children have no homes to take their friends to."

What is cheering about the project is that it brings together housing, health and education depatments to consider the effects of homelessness on children. The holistic approach is unusual - "How often do housing and education departments work together?" - and that gives the project a much greater value than the pound;6,000 research fee.

The debate about the value of SCRE will continue. For now the last word goes to the headteacher of one of the schools involved in The Class Moves evaluation.

The exercises seem to be going well, she says, but the teachers have no way of measuring the benefits and no time to think about it. "Everybody in school is very busy. We rely on researchers for our information. It is very useful to get the feedback from SCRE. It helps us to see the big picture."

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