Learning the values of equity: Jean Rudduck looks at the problems of differentiation for those involved in the area of school research

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The virtue of the research assessment exercise in higher education is that it draws attention to issues of quality and keeps alive important debates about criteria for judging quality.

However, it can lead us to prioritise research that has short- term goals rather than that which builds longer-term, cumulative understandings. It can lead us to work in a spirit of competitive individualism rather than easy collaboration.

This can bring about a proliferation of outlets for publication, as though publication itself - rather than the impact of ideas on structures of thinking and practice - are what matters. And it can make us seek out and claim novel arenas for our research, because personal or institutional ownership is an important dimension of the system of judgement.

In the area of school research, where many of us choose to work, there remains a basic research agenda which is not novel, but which must not be bypassed.

It is to do with students' motivation and engagement in learning, their sense of self as a learner and their sense of the future, issues that lie at the politically awkward intersections of class and culture, opportunity and control.

We cannot effectively tackle concerns about achievement without understanding how young people are responding to the current sharper spirit of differentiation, with its effect on their sense of purpose and possibility in schooling.

'Differentiation' is a word whose significance varies according to context. As a classroom strategy that enables teachers to match the challenge of the task to the potential of the student, differentiation is a positive practice and one that students can understand and feel good about.

However, when it operates as an organisational 'dividing strategy' - as part of a technology of control - it becomes difficult for teachers to build a learning community where young people recognise and respect different strengths and needs in each other.

In the daily interaction of the classroom, the corridor and the playground, any system that highlights and legitimises the crude categorisation of difference runs the risk of strengthening the impulse within the peer group to give their own labels to those who are different, faltering or weak.

'Everyone's brainy in our class except us,' claimed three secondary school students to researchers during an Economic and Social Research Council study. 'They didn't want to work with us. They thought they'd have to do all the work because we're stupid,' the students said. Once students are caught in a sub-culture of derision, it is very difficult for them to regain confidence.

In one secondary school in a socially and economically disadvantaged area, teachers have worked for many years on equity issues and the building of self-respect. 'Setting' was recently introduced as a way of coping with the demands of the new curriculum and its attainment levels.

Some students in the bottom sets were angry at first at being syphoned off, and were determined to do well so that they could be moved up into higher sets - but during the course of the year they came to accept their lot.

The energy of anger turned into either a dull sense of powerlessness or a tough nonchalance - reactions that make re-engagement with learning, and in some cases with schooling - difficult.

Policy makers are courting contradiction when they talk about entitlement, and when they ask that achievement levels be raised - something that teachers are keen to work towards - while at the same time initiating structures that endorse the negative labelling of some young people and heighten the risk of their disengagement from learning.

It has taken a long time to get even a limited vision of equity on the social and educational agenda. If we are to keep the vision in focus, then teachers and researchers need to work in tandem.

This may not be easy. Indeed, I sometimes suspect that there is a conspiracy to keep us apart. It has happened in relation to initial teacher education and, to a large extent, in relation to in-service education and higher degree work.

The government has generally advanced its policies without taking much account of research or researchers. Research is safer if it is kept on the tight leash of a contract bidding system.

Indeed, there are some signs that the balance of research funding is slowly beginning to tip towards the study of continuing education and training, and away from school-focused concerns.

These new directions are to be applauded, but I hope that researchers will not feel compelled - through whatever pressures - to give up on issues of equity and achievement in schools.

Many teachers have been struggling, often with little support apart from their own sense of commitment to their students and to educational principles, to build whole-school policies on equal opportunities.

And they do sometimes ask what difference their efforts can make in a society where the 'official typescripts' for the roles of the powerful and the powerless are still so readily available.

They know that it will be a long haul - 'like emptying the ocean with a teacup,' said one teacher - aware that we are now working in a climate which endorses an even stronger marking out of winners and losers.

Jean Rudduck is director of research at Homerton College, Cambridge and president of the British Educational Research Association, 1994-5.

(Photograph omitted)