Like water off a mallard's back

19th September 1997 at 01:00
At this year's British Educational Research Association conference David Budge discovers that 42 is not the answer and Maureen O'Connor reports on the pick of the papers at an event that remained upbeat in the face of criticism.

The answer to the ultimate question of "life, the universe and everything", as Douglas Adams told us in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is 42. But calculations that have anything to do with the education service are rather more complicated than that.

At last weekend's British Educational Research Association conference Stephen Gorard and three colleagues estimated the odds of individuals becoming lifetime learners. As a result, we now know that a 50-year-old woman born and still living in Neath Port Talbot, from an Anglican family, with an unqualified father of intermediate occupational class and an unwaged mother, who attended a secondary modern school, obtained no qualifications at 16, has an intermediate class occupation, and no hobby requiring study or practice has the following predicted probability of going to night school: l(l+e-(3.54-0.04*50-0.58-0.31+0.07-0.96+0.33-0.23-0.37-1.21+0.15-0.48+0. 38) )

Helpfully, they added that this equated to 16 per cent.

Some would scoff, fold the 14 A4 pages of accompanying text into as many paper aeroplanes and launch them straight out the window. But their scorn would be misplaced.

Yes, it may be a farcical calculation, an attempt to quantify the unknowable. But in fact Gorard et al's back-of-a-very-wide-envelope calculation was dropped into a paper that was interesting and otherwise intelligible to non-statisticians.

They have found, for example, that those from a non-conformist religious background are more likely than Anglicans to be adult learners. They have also argued persuasively that the hoped-for "learning society" will not be achieved simply by making it easier for people to participate in more of the adult education that is already on offer.

A frustrating mix of arcana and fascinating insights is, however, one of the things that BERA conference-goers have come to expect. Long, blister-inducing walks between lecture rooms at opposite ends of university campuses are another inescapable feature of the weekend. But at least you can fit in a spot of bird-watching on the way. Last year it was the peacock preening itself outside the plant-draped Lancaster University launderette that caught the eye (were these the fabled Hanging Gardens of Basildon?). This year York University offered mallards and moorhens.

The vast range of subjects on offer was another plus. There were therefore some delicious dilemmas. Should one listen to Avril Loveless on visual literacy or Loveness Kaunda on science students? Should one move up-market to Michael Fielding on the "illicit joys of intellectual oscillation" or rough it with Dave Hill's uncompromising "No bollocks, no width?: 'New Labour' and initial teacher education".

Surprisingly, the mood of the conference was more upbeat than last year when the after-shock of Professor David Hargreaves's high-profile criticisms of education research could still be felt. This year's conference coincided with another outspoken attack on the BERA members' work - this time by Professor Alan Smithers (TES, September 12) - and the news that the Office for Standards in Education had commissioned a study into the utility of education research by Dr James Tooley, of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Worse still, OFSTED had asked Dr Tooley, a self-proclaimed liberal who is seen as a radical right-winger, to look for evidence of political bias.

But most BERA members took the two setbacks in their stride. In fact their self-confidence appeared to grow as the conference progressed even though they accept that some of the papers presented in York would not stand up to close scrutiny. The retiring president, Professor Donald McIntyre, urged his association not to lash back at the criticism, but rather recognise that some of the attacks are ridiculous, and their authors have become figures of fun.

Professor Seamus Hegarty, director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, added further support by describing the BERA conference as "both a celebration of the vitality of education research and a contribution to it".

But it was the strong rumours that chief inspector Chris Woodhead had upset the Department for Education and Employment by commissioning the Tooley research and Professor Michael Barber's announcement that the DFEE wants a more vigorous dialogue with researchers that were largely responsible for the surge in confidence. "There is a huge opportunity for a new partnership between the educational research community and the Government," he told the conference.

When figures as influential as Barber are "talking up" the value of research, the prospect of the Tooley report seems less intimidating. Dr Tooley is a BERA member and is comparatively well-liked for someone who disagrees with most of his colleagues.

He presented two papers at the conference and both attracted criticism. The first, an analysis of feminist writing commissioned by the New Zealand Business Round Table, drew some chortles because he reasoned that it was possible to be a radical feminist and a supporter of the traditional curriculum. But the second, which illustrated how education vouchers funded by philanthropists could replace state funding, was described as "hogwash" by a member of the audience. Surprisingly, Dr Tooley agreed with him. His self-deprecation was quite endearing, but his OFSTED report could yet make him some enemies.

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