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A Doctoral Student’s Experience of an International Collaboration: BERA 2017

In early September I was one of 996 participants who enjoyed the three day annual conference of the British Educational Research Association Conference (BERA) in Brighton. The programme was so large it required serious study in advance but enabled me to consider my own research in relation to that in other educational disciplines. There were 16 history sessions. I am a doctoral student and this was my second BERA conference. I write to highlight the opportunities it gave me as a postgraduate student, ones that I would not have expected. BERA, however, like ICHRE provides many opportunities.

History SIGI was co-convenor of a two panel symposium with Professor Linda Chisholm from the University of Johannesburg, South Africa on ‘Transnational perspectives on the history of missionary education’. The first panel dealt with post-colonial changes and continuities, while the second dealt with identity changes in the process of change and continuity beyond the colonial period. Our interest was in transnational linkages in the changes and continuities after the official ending of colonialism. An international collaboration, the symposium resulted from a discussion with Linda at the BERA 2016 History SIG social. Our research in Catholic and Lutheran missionary education crossing Italian-American and German-South African national boundaries respectively seemed a good focus for a panel at BERA 2017.

Talking with Professor Kim Fong Poon-McBrayer, from the Education University of Hong Kong, over drinks at the 2016 conference reception I learnt that in the course of her research on inclusion in Hong Kong she had become curious to follow up data which pointed to the legacy of missionary education in the development of inclusive schools in Hong Kong. We went on to invite Dr Brendan Carmody of UCL Institute of Education who has published in History of Education, on the educational work of Irish missionaries in Zambia and Dr Annalaura Turiano of Aix –Marseilles whose doctoral thesis looks at how Italian Salesians in Egypt altered the nature of their place in Egyptian education over time. Our SIG co-ordinator, Dr Heather Ellis, agreed to be the discussant.

Our symposium abstracts were among 959 submitted. 592 were accepted. We were given helpful feedback including a numerical score for each assessment criteria. I learnt from the process and benefitted from the experience of the other scholars in our group. As a retired teacher I was able to offer my administrative and organisational skills! More of us are now pursuing doctorates so this is something we can contribute to the scholarly community. At the end of our symposium Heather shared her observations including pointing out that missionary education has implications for today. These gave us a good focus for a productive de-brief over lunch the following day where we had a lively discussion around the categories of transnational, diasporic and colonial histories, concluding that these categories are relational.

I also benefitted from the bursaries open to presenters at the conference. I was awarded a BERA student bursary covering the cost of the conference and my travel and accommodation were covered by an ICHRE Richard Aldrich bursary.  Two other members of the group were awarded international collaboration bursaries. Our collaboration has also contributed to our writing. I have gained useful insights for my thesis. Kim and Annalaura are following up with articles and Linda’s book, Between Worlds: German Missionaries and the Transition from Mission to Bantu Education is due to be published in November 2017. BERA 2018 will be held at Northumbria University.

Maria Williams, PhD Student, UCL Institute of Education

Why might BERA wish to thank Margaret Thatcher?

In 2017 ICHRE’s Director Gary McCulloch took over as President of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and delivered his first Presidential Address. Here he asks ‘What does BERA owe to Margaret Thatcher?’

Gary McCulloch

This sounds like a weird pub quiz question, and may have an even weirder answer. When BERA’s inaugural conference met in Birmingham in April 1974, Thatcher had already lost her post as secretary of state for education and science amid the shambles of the general election, in which Edward Heath’s Conservative government famously asked who runs Britain and then found out that it didn’t.  Yet Thatcher was ultimately responsible for the DES’s dusty answer when the leaders of the new organisation asked for a pump priming grant to hold its first conference and get itself organised.

The DES’s negative response caused much concern, with research leaders comparing the British attitude to educational research unfavourably with other advanced nations.  Most failed applications of this type lead to the end of a project rather than a starting point.

So, why did the DES say no to BERA, and why might we thank Mrs Thatcher for it?

The answer to the first question can be found in the National Archives at Kew.  Sir David Eccles, the Conservative minister of education who set up a ministerial research unit, was happy to support academic research based in the universities, even where this might be critical of official education policy.  Many of his officials were much less sanguine, and resisted applications to fund new societies and centres in the 1960s.

This attitude hardened with Mrs Thatcher in charge in the early 1970s.   The department shifted from a ‘patronage’ role to one that was ‘policy oriented’.  In future, the DES would only support an application if it was directly related to the Department’s own policies, or deemed to be of direct public concern.

Its new planning unit affirmed in a memorandum in October 1973 that ‘What the Department seems to need is the services of what might be called “hack” research workers.  Not “hack” in a derogatory sense, but people who get down to a job of fact gathering and careful assessment without having too many preconceived ideas of where the educational system ought to be going.’

Nevertheless, rather than stifling the nascent BERA at birth, the DES’s approach actually forced it to depend on the resources available to university-based educational researchers.  This would certainly not be an easy road, especially as there were some in the academy who looked down on educational research and in the schools who regarded it as irrelevant.

But at least it would not be dependent on the vagaries of state funding which might be vulnerable to changes in government policy.  Instead, it would be an independent charitable agency standing on its own feet, accountable above all to its own membership for its future direction.

So here, then, is the answer to the second question.  In this sense, BERA has a lot to thank Mrs Thatcher for, as she helped to establish an organisation that in 2017 flourishes as a broad church with over 2,000 members, which has carved out a space for researchers often in difficult times, and that stands for high quality educational research in all its many forms across the UK and for members around the world.

John Nisbet, BERA’s first president, at the conference that the DES declined to fund, pointed out that such research had a ‘critical role’, that is, providing ‘constructive criticism’. Another early president, Brian Simon, pointed out exactly forty years ago that the real issue was ‘whether scientists are to be allowed to operate as scientists, educationists as educationists, researchers as researchers; or whether all are to become service personnel, waiting cap in hand for orders in response to which appropriate methods will be sorted out to produce acceptable results or conclusions’.

It is this academic freedom and commitment to truths that may be inconvenient, in an age of fake news and widespread distrust of experts, that BERA continues to represent today.

This post was originally published on the BERA Blog, 4 September 2017.