Action needed

6th January 1995 at 00:00
Promoting Quality and Equality in Schools: empowering teachers through change, Edited by Ruth Frith and Pat Mahony, David Fulton Pounds 12.99 1 85346 343 4

Tony Edwards commends an equal opportunities project. The Action Project which this book describes began from a belief that enough is known already about differences in pupil performance and motivation, and that effort should now be directed into making opportunity less unequal.

From that came a commitment to teacher-initiated and teacher-evaluated strategies for improvement. Five related projects are described, from two secondary schools and a primary school in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The accounts are by teachers directly involved, although the critical importance of making such initiatives into whole-school concerns is emphasised throughout.

The editors are, respectively, an education adviser for the LEA and the head of Goldsmiths' Coll-ege education department. Their prompting and support are warmly acknowledged by the teachers, as are the benefits of being part of a larger project, but the main curriculum message is "the empowerment value of teachers learning that they are the researchers, that they are the experts exploring and managing change".

The first report is of how teachers in a secondary school trained themselves to notice problems created for girls by boys' classroom behaviour and by some teaching practices. Research evidence was not enough; "more proof was needed that the problems existed in our school" before they could be confronted with conviction. The next chapters focus on experiments in single-sex teaching, especially in subjects where girls were most vulnerable to being crowded out, in a school with a two-to-one preponderance of boys.

Given the writers' concern that their school showed characteristics of "predominantly male school environments in terms of competitiveness, authoritarianism, a prevalent atmosphere of physical challenge and what we might term power through exertion rather than negotiation", there is an irony (which they recognise) that the boys' group in one experiment were involved in an individualised, non-negotiated study of "heroes and TV violence". This might seem to be playing the Devil the Devil's own tunes. It is worth noting that girls saw boys as providing diversity, competition and entertainment, but as serious obstacles to their own learning of a stereotypically male subject like CDT.

Listening to the pupils was a notable feature of the projects. It is most striking in the reports from a primary school with a mainly Muslim intake. Here the investigations began with interviewing of teachers, in school time with cover provided from project funds. But raising their awareness carried the risk that girls would be shielded from the effects of boys' behaviour while the underlying problems remained.

So Year 6 children were not only asked what it was like to be a boy and a girl in that class, but enlisted as researchers to observe interaction in other classes, how the infants organised their playing space, who tidied up after the messier lessons, and how younger children talked about their school experiences. Among the conclusions of one boys' investigative group was "girls have better behaviour than boys" and, in a conspicuously subtle judgment, that "the teacher should treat people very well but the boys slightly worse to make it equal".

All this work, the teachers insist, is not only compatible with but beneficial to meeting the demands of the national curriculum. The whole project was partly prompted by anxiety that issues of equal opportunity might be crowded out by the pressures on schools to compete for advantage in an increasingly competitive market.

But as the editors argue, against familiar assertions about levelling down, lowering barriers to educational opportunity brings higher standards.The book is a lively illustration of how that might be done. It is also a persuasive demonstration of reform initiated and vigorously followed through from within schools.

Tony Edwards is Professor of Education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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