Why don't more Ulster Catholics do science?

14th September 2001 at 01:00
A curious aspect of Northern Ireland's religious divide is just one of many puzzles facing this week's British Educational Research Association conference. Clare Dean reports.

WHY are Protestant students in Northern Ireland significantly more likely than their Catholic counterparts to study science subjects at A-level?

Can a change in the structure of the school calendar influence teaching and learning and do bad experiences of PE while teachers were at school mean they do not want to get involved with games?

These questions, along with hundreds of others, will be testing up to 1,000 academics and teachers at the British Educational Research Association conference.

The three-day event, at Leeds University, began yesterday, and as Anne Edwards, its president, told delegates: Being an educational researcher today is not easy.

Learning now does not just take place in schools, colleges and universities. It happens in families, in health centres and in gardeners' clubs. As the boundaries between school and community have become blurred, the space in which research is located has in turn been disrupted.

And Professor Edwards warned: "Unless educational research can encompass and inform more informal and dispersed educational opportunities it may find itself becoming an anachronism."

The life of an educational researcher is not one in which an academic grows old gracefully, gathering respect, she told delegates.

She said: "Instead, we continue to struggle disgracefully to understand our uncertain world in new ways and persistently demand to be heard when we share our, often disruptive, insights."

But Professor Edwards, from Birmingham University, said: "We are educational researchers because education matters to us. We all work to enhance educational opportunities and we have a lot to offer."

Hence the conference and the hundreds of papers presented by academics from not only Britain, but from as far a field as Australia and New Zealand.

Their research covers everything from the best techniques to teach pupils to what gay teachers say when confronted with the question: "How do you earn your living?" shouted above the noise of a club.

Academics are studying literacy and popular culture, funding and special needs. They are looking at education from early years to further and higher education.

There is a huge variety of case studies. One, for example, looks at journals kept by sixth-formers facing increasing demands at A-level; another explores the use of information and communications technology.

Serious questions are being asked about the role of the Office for Standards in Education and of the Government as it embarks on yet more changes to the education landscape.

As ministers move to encourage colleges to work with 14-year-olds, academics are already studying the effect of work-related learning as a means of keeping disaffected youngsters within education.

What too is the impact of performance-related pay in schools and why are so few men working in primaries? Are the two related?

Professor Edwards, from Birmingham's centre for sociocultural and activity theory research, said: "Educational researchers are practitioners in an engaged social science and it isn't an easy ride."

But she added: "I feel confident that the research and policy communities are en route to more fruitful relationships than have been possible over the last few decades."

Watch out for Richard Pring today. The Oxford University professor of education promises to disclose the virtues and vices of educational researchers.

See next week's TES for the answers to some of these questions ... and many others.


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