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Book of the week: 25 years of change

Education, Reform and the State: Twenty-five years of politics, policy and practice Edited by Robert Phillips and John Furlong RoutledgeFalmer pound;25

This collection of essays marks the 25th anniversary of James Callaghan's landmark speech on education at Ruskin College, Oxford. It is an anniversary well worth bringing to public attention, for the speech began a process of change that continues today. In a historical overview, Robert Phillips rightly describes the speech as a watershed, as it set out areas for debate which have dominated educational discourse for 25 years.

He traces the continuity of policy from Callaghan's cautious questioning, through Keith Joseph's market-based philosophy and Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act, to the radicalism of the New Right and the adoption by New Labour of many policies of the previous government.

The key principles articulated by Callaghan at Ruskin, Phillips observes, can be seen in the education programme of New Labour. The emphasis on choice and greater diversity in secondary education echoes Callaghan's lack of confidence in the ability of comprehensives to raise standards. Increased prescriptiveness by central government, even in matters of pedagogy, can be traced back to Callaghan's doubts about teaching methods.

Like Callaghan, New Labour uses international comparisons to support its case. Strengthening the role of parents in education featured in the Ruskin speech has been a strong thread in policy. Callaghan brought education policy closer to the outside world, and this has since led to greater accountability, stronger governing bodies, the national curriculum, national tests, performance tables and much else.

A series of chapters by academics covers institutional change since 1976 - the primary curriculum, the move away from the comprehensive ideal, further education, higher education, and Wales. Teacher professionalism, teacher education, assessment policy and the standards debate form the next section, which ends with chapters on special needs, race, gender and class.

This logical structure covers all the main policy areas and the chapters are well structured and clearly written. Thanks to good editing, there is a consistency of approach and style that is often absent from multi-author works. There is perhaps too much of the conventional academic style, which sometimes reads like a literature review ("As Jones [1989] and Smith [1990] state, etc"), and occasional lapses into gobbledegook ("there is a pressing need for a more socio-cultural understanding of assessment as a 'social product' "). If the book's aim is in the subtitle, it is stronger on politics and policy than on practice, and would have benefited from setting the experiences of practitioners against academic analysis.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

  • Picture: James Callaghan and demonstrators after the Ruskin College speech
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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