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The social context in which schools operate makes it difficult to maintain a sector of schooling between the snootily academic and the grittily basic. Two recent books describe good educational ideas which each filled a need but did not fit the desirable pattern of their time.

The English Higher Grade Schools by Meriel Vlaeminke (Woburn Press pound;35) describes the now largely forgotten schools - a strong presence at the end of the 19th century - intended to take children beyond the upper limits of elementary schools.

They were not grammar schools: the curriculum was broader and less academically hidebound. So how could they hope to survive? Sure enough, they were scuppered by the 1902 Education Act, which, in setting up county grammar schools, ensured higher level schooling reverted to a more acceptably traditional pattern.

In Pride and Some Prejudice (Imogen, 1 Greenacre Road, Lache Lane, Chester CH4 7NH pound;8.99) Adrian Bristow describes the junior technical schools which in some areas provided a technically and commercially biased alternative to grammars. Technical education, however, has never had much social status here and the coming of the comprehensive finished off the junior tech.

Contemplation of systems brings on gloom. Better to think about people, so here are two books about remarkable but very different people. In John Usborne, Schoolmaster (published by the author, 118b Highbury Hill, London N5 1AT pound;12) artist Ann Usborne gives us a comprehensive and frank daughter's-eyeview of a gifted teacher (at St Paul's School, London and in the United States) and broadcaster. Usborne died in 1965, aged 49. Ann, inspired by his former pupils, has collected reminiscences such as one from a boy Usborne protected from bullying: "He gave me hope that I was not doomed to spend my life friendless and isolated."

And yet, describing him as a father, she writes, "...he was uneasy physically with both Julie (her sister) and me." Many teachers, I suspect, will recognise this difficulty of fully reconciling the roles of teacher and parent.

For a daughter to write a memoir of her late father seems only natural. But for a mother to have to write a memoir of her late daughter seems bleak and brutal. She Said Yes by Misty Bernall (The Plough Publishing House, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5DR pound;7.99) contains its share of bleakness and brutality. How could it be otherwise, given that Cassie was shot with 12 fellow pupils by two of their schoolmates in the Colorado high school massacre of April 20, 1999.

Cassie's last moments have passed into inspirational legend. "Do you believe in God?" asked one of the troubled killers. "Yes," she replied. Then, in the words of one of her classmates, "They just blew her away."

This is the story of a young girl who grew up in a loving home, went through her own adolescence and returned to religion before she died. Importantly for most readers, though, it is also a story of an ordinary family struggling with tragedy and grief.

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