Doing Research about Education

By Geoffrey Walford | Go to book overview

6

Using Ethnographic Methods in a Study of Students' Secondary School and Post-school Careers

Gwen Wallace, Jean Rudduck and Julia Flutter with Susan Harris

Ethnography is usually seen as either a process (a method of working 'in the field') or as a finished narrative account of research findings. In this paper we challenge such a dichotomy, arguing that methodological issues in ethnographic research are not simply a discussion of the merits of techniques but an inextricable part of the final narrative account. This was particularly so in our longitudinal study where methodological and theoretical issues interconnected with the way the relationships between the members of a (changing) research team, school staff and students developed over time in the context of events. In this chapter we recount something of the story of our research project. The story is inevitably partial. Our aim is to demonstrate the value of ethnographic methods for educational research; to answer Silverman's (1985) question, 'What is going on here?'

The project began in September, 1991 and was based at Sheffield University. Jean Rudduck, Jon Nixon and David Gillborn drew up the proposal as a bid for one of 10 programmes in the major ESRC funded initiative, 'Innovation and Change in Education: The Quality of Teaching and Learning'. The programme initiative was coordinated under the leadership of Martin Hughes and members of all 10 programmes met occasionally to discuss progress and share their ideas. As Martin Hughes points out elsewhere (Hughes, 1996, p. xiv), the aim was to illuminate and inform (education policy and practice), not criticize and condemn.

Our project was called 'Making Your Way Through Secondary School: Students' experiences of teaching and learning', and was designed as a longitudinal study to track students through their last four years of secondary education from 1991 to 1995. This proved to be a period marked not only by changes in the students as they grew up, but also by changes in the schools as they responded to government policy; notably the 1988 and 1993 Education Acts.

There were also changes in the membership of the research team and changes in the focus and concerns of the educational and academic debates of which they were part. Jean Rudduck became Project Director and proved the only constant. Susan Harris was recruited as the first Post-Doctoral Research Officer but she was partly replaced by Julia Flutter (then Day) when Jean

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