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Too 'green cucumber' for classes;Briefing;Research focus

British Educational Research Association conferences tend to concentrate on either the arcane methodological and theoretical debates that fascinate the academic community or the day-to-day concerns of UK teachers.

But this year some well-travelled researchers introduced their colleagues to the almost unimaginably different education worlds that exist in Egypt, China and Nepal.

Francis Mudge of the University of East Anglia seemed to be still rubbing his eyes in disbelief as he described school life in Egypt, where there is a huge

surplus of teachers. State school teachers told him that they could disappear for two or three days without anyone noticing, largely because they are expected to take as few as two or three 45-minute lessons a week.

But their lot is anything but enviable, as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has acknowledged. They not only have to endure countless hours of

desultory conversation in the staffroom and classes of 50 to 60 on the rare occasions when they do teach - they also receive

pitifully low salaries. Some teachers, therefore, have to give up to eight hours of private lessons each day, six days a week.

Furthermore, as school supervisors also have to rely on private tuition fees, they sometimes undermine teachers in class in order to recruit pupils to their own after-school tutorials.

Patricia Potts returned from China with a slightly more positive account of an integration programme in Shangai that is introducing "mentally retarded" children to mainstream classes. But the Canterbury researcher also noted that teachers' pay and housing conditions are often poor and that they are no longer granted automatic respect.

"I felt that the teachers were committed to welcoming a wider range of students into their classes but they were unsure about how to respond," she said. It is, however, just possible that the teachers she observed might have been unusually inhibited.

While visiting one class, she realised that "as well as the 40 children, there were 11 adults in the room: the teacher, myself, two colleagues from the East China Normal University, the head, the 'academic head', the deputy head, the video cameraman, the 'co-ordinator of special education' and two 'special consultants' from the local college of education".

Freelance researcher Anna Robinson-Pant had no such encumbrances while conducting a study of women's literacy classes in a remote area of western Nepal where public notices are stuck to trees with mud. Her paper described how illiterate village women subtly moulded the aid-agency classes to suit their own needs.

"There was an unspoken agreement between them and their teacher that the class should build on the academic literacy practices with which they were more familiar from the local school - chanting syllables and mirroring the hierarchical relationship between pupils and teacher," she said. "This was in opposition to the participatory approaches that the teacher had been trained by the aid agency to use, and also moved away from a functional approach. Their main reason for attending was to become 'educated' rather than learning to keep accounts."

But one older woman said that she was "such green cucumber" that she should not be attending. Robinson-Pant later learned that the woman was referring to a Nepalese saying: "Why eat green cucumber at the time of dying?"

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