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A plea for democracy

ADVOCACY, SELF-ADVOCACY AND SPECIAL NEEDS. Edited by Philip Garner and Sarah Sandow. David Fulton Pounds 12.99

At the heart of this excellent book is a concern for children's rights and the need for progressive, democratic, liberal education. If schools are to be truly democratic, they have to give children their voice.

The book starts with a powerful chapter on the importance and the significance of the child's voice. It quotes liberally from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights to demonstrate how often children's rights are flouted in this country - particularly if those children are designated "special". If your child has a statement, for instance, you don't have a right to choose the kind of education, as the declaration asserts you should.

The importance of schools' councils as a means of achieving self-advocacy for children at school figures throughout the book, though there are warnings about merely paying lip-service to the council. There has to be some way of articulating the council's deliberations in forums which are able to make decisions and effect action. Too often the council exists only as a notional recognition of a demand for democracy. But the message that comes over here is that even if school managements think in the most traditional terms about school effectiveness, this effectiveness is promoted through listening to children via their councils and acting on their advice. Effective schools are democratic schools.

There are some excellent chapters written by practitioners on developing participation and thus advocacy in the classroom. Useful ideas are given on grouping, drama and recognising children's success. A particularly valuable case study is given of one primary school - its ethos, its behaviour policy, its communications with parents, and its rules. There is valuable discussion of questionnaires about each child in the school which go to parent, child and teacher. The minutes of one school council meeting are included to show how behaviour policy is interpreted and implemented in the school.

New territory is explored not just for special education but for inclusive education in all schools. The book is intelligently sectioned with introductions which link the chapters. This makes a refreshing change.

Gary Thomas is reader in education at the University of the West of England

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