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Another fine mess you've gotten us into

National School Policy, Edited by Jim Docking, David Fulton

In association with Roehampton Institute. Pounds 13.99 Stuart Maclure looks back at education policy over the past two decades. This is a practical guide to current issues in English education policy. It covers the years since 1979 and more particularly since the mid-1980s. It is a composite work by 11 different writers, most of them from the educational policy team at the Roehampton Institute, arranged under four main headings: Curriculum Policy, Equal Educational Opportunities, Diversity and Choice, and Management Policy.

There are 15 chapters each running to about 15 pages and the editor has been remarkably successful in getting his contributors to stick to a common plan. First comes a short description of the changes in law and practice which affect the policy in question, then there is an analysis of the issues and some of the outstanding questions, together with suggestiions for further reading. It is efficiently assembled as a teaching tool.

Events are moving fast and a collection of this kind risks becoming out of date before it gets to the market, but this has been brought out with commendable speed and much of the reference content will have a reasonable shelf-life, general elections notwithstanding.

It is not particularly digestible - it is something to "read in" rather than to read - but it could hardly be otherwise. It is written by academics so the tritest statement has to be followed by a name in brackets to give it spurious authority. This becomes tiresome in the discussion of issues and outstanding questions. Sometimes the treatment seems more concerned to cover the waterfront than provide a stimulating introduction to what is happening here and now. Some of the questions are pre-packaged examination briefs and - as for instance in the sections on race and gender - leave no one in any doubt about the politically correct answers.

The sections on the national curriculum set out briefly, but clearly, the story so far and in doing so, show the last seven years are only the latest episode in an on-going saga, to which each generation of educational politicians will wish to add their ha'porth of ideology and prejudice. Derek Shaw's essay on assessment provides a description of the tortuous road from Professor Black's Task Group on assessment and Testing, to Dearing's deceptive but useful simplicities. It seemed at the time that the TGAT report - another job undertaken at lightning speed - was too good to be true. It offered a counsel of perfection from which Ministers were able to pick the items they liked while rejecting the expensive and difficult bits. Perhaps Professor. Black and his colleagues were naive to suppose it would be otherwise.

As questions of selection and differentiation reappear at the forefront of the political debate in the run up to the election, the matters dealt with by Peter Jackson on diversity and Jim Docking on choice take on added importance.

There has always been a good deal of diversity in English education; much of the Thatcher educational revolution has been aimed at reducing it by introducing a national curriculum. Structural diversity has been diminished in principle where comprehensive education has taken over from grammar and modern schools, but the comprehensive schools themselves have been highly diverse, depending on social geography and competition from independent schools.

Now this patchwork of diversity has been extended by an unplanned scatter of grant-maintained and technology schools, and by the handful of city technology colleges. The White Paper will add to the confusion with more and more schools being urged to introduce an element of selection.

But, as Jim Docking points out, the totem of parental choice is powerful medicine and is here to stay. It was raised in the 1944 Act but hedged around with limitations. The 1988 Act went much further, but parents' preferences can only be made to count when there is a range of genuinely different options for them to choose from and room for their children at the most popular schools. There is also the less attractive likelihood of more sink schools. As more parents learn how to use the system, the number of appeals against rejection increase each year and the system looks like breaking down quite soon.

Diversity and choice, of course, are two sides of the same coin. Because diversity is arbitrary and unplanned, choice is haphazard. More selective places hand choice over to schools. The Conservatives have made choice their issue, but it doesn't look as if Labour will be any less keen to champion the cause of the consumer. This is a mess which will run and run.

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