For all real teachers out there

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?. By Jill Clough, Irene Dalton and Bernard Trafford. Secondary Heads Association. pound;10. Order on www.sha.org.uk.

Hilary Belden finds a slim volume that offers a survival kit for the term ahead

This fascinating, reassuringly short volume of reflection is the product of "a strong professional friendship". It's likely to achieve its aim, not only of being read "before September" - there's still time, just - but of giving joy to its readers.

"We offer it in support of those who are thinking in isolation and feel threatened by the current climate," say the authors. "We hope that those who read it may find the confidence, amid the bustle and the pressure, to stop and ask themselves what it's all about and whether they are doing something simply because "it is expected" or because it is right for "the learners in their care". What carefully chosen words - and what a call to creative thinking and feeling, to "moral" reflection on the needs of 'the learners in our care'.

Jill Clough is well-known for her courageous change of post. Three years ago she left selective all-girls Wimbledon high school to take on East Brighton College of Media Arts, a school about which she quotes a telling statistic: "The area from which my pupils come represents about 3 per cent of the city; and 71 per cent of the Child Protection Register." I posted a TES article about Ms Clough (Friday magazine, July 6, 2001) on my own office board, in a school where some students were in similar circumstances, as an inspiration through the tough days.

Irene Dalton edits the Secondary Heads Association house magazine, Headlines, as well as being head of Wombwell high school, Barnsley, in "a traditional pit community". Bernard Trafford is head of Wolverhampton grammar school and equal opportunities officer of the SHA.

They are writing for "all readers who teach or have taught". They have no time for "irrelevant and almost anti-learning strategies, dictated by non-teachers". Dalton writes tellingly about the time consumed by bidding for "funny money", and Trafford is intensely critical of politicians'

"obsession with 'standards' and the 'short-term political future'" - "just too much pushing and far too little readiness to pause and consider what we are really trying to achieve, and why".

But this book is more than a sharply-worded critique of central government policy. These three heads are committed to a view of education that should hearten every teacher, and rouse into serious self-criticism every DfES official and minister. They believe students are "what it is all about". They want to ask learners "what do you need?" and to build institutions with democratic structures where students are empowered to find a point and purpose in what education has to offer.

Irene Dalton comments: "What can we do if we know, as I know in my heart, that we cannot change the cynical national picture? Well, we can have the courage to say no: not all this funding is worth the price. We can judge what we are doing in the bidding process against what we know to be the real needs of the school."

Jill Clough reviews research into the brain. "The separation of emotional from cognitive development is too damaging to be allowed any longer to dominate our approach. It would be more accurate," she writes, summarising Daniel Goleman's argument in Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ (1995) "to think of all children having a profile of abilities across a wide range of intelligences.

"Children from socially deprived backgrounds are led to believe that other backgrounds are superior, certainly more desirable, and little effort is made to find those qualities in their experiences which are potentially strong and admirable. In other words, no one is helping them to tell themselves a different story, because no one thinks their story in itself is worth the telling." Jill Clough does, and describes her aims in her school.

Read and enjoy every moment of this angry, compassionate and subversive book, whether you agree with it all or not. Feel empowered by it to engage, as Bernard Trafford says, in "remodelling education in both aims and means so that it can finally become worthy of, and able to meet, the needs and aspirations of learners of all ages for generations to come."

That is what it is all about.

Hilary Belden is co-ordinator of the Ealing North West Partnership EAZ and former head of Glenthorne high school, London borough of Sutton

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