Whiff of controversy in quiet Auld Reekie

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Edinburgh's streets were eerily deserted last Wednesday. Three weeks earlier the Royal Mile had been thronged with raucous festival-goers, but that night even the dogs had stayed indoors.

"Half the population are saving their cash to go to Blackpool for the Illuminations," said the taxi-driver, who was eager to talk after driving around on his own for an hour. "The ither half have been watching the Germans beat us at fitba on the TV, and noo they dinna feel like goin'

oot."

The gloom did not, however, affect education researchers arriving for Bera's 30th anniversary conference at Heriot-Watt university. Some academics, such as Bera's retiring academic secretary Michael Bassey, believe that the withdrawal of funding from all but the strongest research departments has left them with even more to worry about than the Scottish football team. But if they were concerned about where their next bawbees would come from last week it did not seem to show.

This year's conference had a more upbeat feel than last year's affair at Exeter. And it wasn't only the kilted piper and Scottish country dancing at the grand conference dinner that lifted the spirits. The new Bera president, John Furlong, got the conference off on the right foot with a frank - but not overly pessimistic - assessment of the current state of British education research. "My view about education research is not so much that it is theoretically flawed but that it is often boring."

Those who overheard two of Bera's more earnest members having an animated discussion about "dispositives" on their way to breakfast on Thursday morning will probably have agreed with Professor Furlong's assessment.

Nevertheless, the conference itself was far from boring. This was partly because there were so many new faces - attendance broke the 1,000 barrier for the first time - and a high proportion of them were from other countries.

This meant that, for once, Bera had a shoal of papers on topics as diverse as Icelandic pre-school education and the inhuman treatment meted out to "Untouchables" in Nepal (some were recently reported to have been denounced as witches and forced to eat excreta). Such papers helped to put some of our more humdrum educational cares into context. But they did not deflect the conference presenters from their main concerns, which this year were leadership, inclusion, science, maths, ICT, continuing professional development and initial teacher training.

As usual, there was almost nothing on independent schools and psychology and little (compared with America) on race.

However, it was also noticeable that relatively few papers could be derided for offering trivial information (one notable exception was a maths study that pointed out that a typical Scottish textbook has 442 pages and measures 24cm x 17cm whereas a Japanese textbook has fewer than 200 pages and measures only 21cm x 15cm).

The Department for Education and Skills may also be reassured to know that Bera is about to launch a potentially useful series of "user reviews" that will answer questions such as "How do we teach children to be numerate?"

The reviews are aimed at policy-makers as well as teachers but it remains to be seen how much use the politicians will make of Bera's research syntheses.

As a DfES official at the conference pointed out, economist John Maynard Keynes was right when he said: "There is nothing a politician likes so little as to be well-informed; it makes decision-making so complex and difficult."

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