Where are our political masters?

...asked British educational researchers. David Budge reports on the BERA conference, while Helen Ward describes the European gathering.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has a low regard for the train operator First Great Western. After a frustrating journey to Plymouth last summer the composer complained that the company was neither first, nor great and had considerable difficulty travelling west.

The female academic returning from the British Educational Research Association conference in the buffet car of the 4.37pm train from Exeter to Paddington last Saturday had no complaints, however. Gin and tonic was being served and - for the first time in three days - no one was talking about education. "If I hear the word 'pedagogy' once more I'll scream," she said.

It is true that many researchers are "sad obsessives" (a friendly gibe levelled by one of their own, Ted Wragg, in his conference-dinner speech). Some of them will talk about "reflective practitioners" until you turn the lights off.

But as this year's BERA conference again demonstrated, most of them do realise that there is a life outside whichever paradigm they happen to inhabit. And that humour can be as important as hermeneutics.

Richard Pring, Oxford's fruity-voiced professor of education, was one of those who remained as sunny as the weather throughout the conference. His bonhomie was particularly appreciated during Saturday morning's depressing showpiece discussion on the future of educational research.

Many academics feel that future is bleak following last year's Research Assessment Exercise, which allocated grades to university education departments. Education did not do as well as most other disciplines and 21 of the lowest-ranked teacher education centres have lost all their research funding.

Stephen Gorard of Cardiff University, which came out top in the RAE education ratings, may well be sympathetic to the lowly-ranked centres, but he did not make it obvious. "Perhaps it's a fair cop," he said. "Perhaps we need to get better, especially if we want to remain free of government control."

He irritated some of the "have-nots" by adding that he had done some of his most significant research on a home computer. It had been completed in 10 days and had cost only pound;10.

Even Richard Pring annoyed fellow researchers such as Nottingham Trent's Phil Garner by arguing for the establishment of powerful and independent regional research centres - a proposal that some saw as elitist. But he drew laughter from his audience by dismissing the Government's commitment to evidence-informed policy-making.

"The pound;40 million academy for gifted and talented children has nothing to do with the research tradition on giftedness. The specification for this project was obviously written by a civil servant who would have been expelled from the academy."

Another senior civil servant in the audience winced as researchers lined up to take kicks at the Government. To her it must have all seemed unfair. This Government, after all, has probably put more time, thought and, arguably, money into education research than any of its predecessors.

But ministers should not be surprised if researchers are biting the hand that feeds (some of) them. As Michael Bassey, BERA's academic secretary, pointed out, this year's conference drew more than 900 researchers and teachers from as far away as New Zealand. But no politician or high-ranking policy-maker seemed to think it was worth attending. They therefore missed some important papers on teacher retention, the exam results of specialist schools, performance management, setting, admissions appeals, early-years education, physical education and teachers' use of research findings.

"Where is Estelle Morris?" Professor Bassey asked. "And where is the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority?"

When such people start putting in an appearance at BERA conferences we will know that our political masters are genuinely prepared to listen to what researchers have to say.

The list of conference paper titles and their abstracts can be viewed at http:brs.leeds.ac.ukbeiwwwBEIAbera2002.htm The TES will be carrying further reports on BERA papers throughout the autumn.

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