During the week I attended an away day for Special Interest Group (SIG) Convenors for the British Education Research Association (BERA), held at the Institute of Education, London. I convene the Social Theory and Education SIG (no surprise there) and the meeting was attended by numerous other convenors of SIGs such as Philosophy of Education, Social Justice, Educational Effectiveness and Improvement, Race, Ethnicity and Education and Early Childhood Education and Care. The SIGs are an important aspect of BERA, as they form the building blocks of the annual conference, while also acting as specialist networks for education researchers.
One of the items on the agenda was to discuss activities related to the 40th anniversary of the Association, which takes place in 2014. As part of the celebrations, BERA ‘wants to create a resource that charts some of the key moments over the past forty years. These should be key moments both for BERA as an organisation but also for educational research in the UK’ (from the website). One of the items I mentioned in response was a possible focus on key education debates that have taken place in the UK over the 40 years, debates that have actively involved the research community within BERA and also in the wider British education research world. Because, when you think about it, there have been some fascinating debates that have impacted on the broader public sphere as well as within the walls of the academy: mainstream v. special schools; the relation between social class, culture and educational achievement; play v. structured learning; setting, streaming and learning in the classroom; the hidden curriculum; and the impact of gender on achievement, to name but a few.
I don’t know if this idea will be taken up or not as part of the celebrations (it should though), but the act of making the claim for such an initiative made me think about the history of education research, in particular the way education research is perceived by not just ourselves as a community but also policy makers and the general public. It seems to me that the ‘story’ of education research never really gets told in narratives of societal change – it stands apart, fragmented, specialised and sometimes just that bit too obscure for popular taste. There are understandable reasons for this – research tends to be quite a specialised pursuit generally – but still this doesn’t prevent us (or the public) from seeing the wood for the trees.
So there’s an opportunity here, I believe, that could be taken by BERA (other organisations are available …). That said, part of the reason why such a narrative so far doesn’t exist may be down to the … well, there’s no other word for it, ‘closed’ nature of the organisation. It’s a membership association, for which interested parties pay an annual fee to belong. Nothing wrong with that of course, finances have to come from somewhere, but I don’t think this lets us off the hook when it comes to the issue of public engagement. The lack of a visible and powerful mechanism for public research dissemination and most importantly, debate, seems to me to be a classic case of ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’. And while I’m at it, I might as well throw in the phrase ‘missing a trick’ for value-added reasons (bad pun intended).
We don’t need to look far for examples of what can work in this regard – the LSE blog being an obvious and visible example of an information and debating chamber open to all. So my basic point is: 40 years of education research suggests that the story of social impact historically is impressive; it just needs someone to tell it.