Black outlook

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Assessment in the Multi-ethnic Primary Classroom, Edited by Pat Keel Trentham Books Pounds 11.95. 0 98080 51 5.

The promised post-Dearing period of stability - if it happens - should be popular with publishers; there seems to be some chance that books like this one, which set out to bring us up to the minute on the official position, will no longer become out of date between desk-top and book shop. On the other hand, when the news is as uniformly depressing as the items of it collected here, being up-to-date is not much of a blessing.

The contributors work hard to put a brave face on it, but just below the surface, their frustration, pain, anger and weariness form a heartfelt accompaniment to the task they have set themselves: a critical scrutiny of current issues around assessment in multi-ethnic Britain. The collection begins with a useful review of the story so far, going back to the 60s, and the first significant rise in the number of black pupils. The historical account is strengthened by an argument that runs through the whole book; the first institutional and political responses to black and bilingual pupils, based on mistaken assumptions about language and culture, still effectively inform policy today, 30 years on.

The fiercest notes are heard in the chapter by Rehana Minhas on OFSTED inspections; the revised Framework of 1993 is given a rousing welcome ("the impact has been tremendously positive") but the rest of the OFSTED record, inspections, training and recruitment, gives grave cause for concern. There are pitifully few black and ethnic minority educationists practising as OFSTED inspectors, and there is no element in the training programme specifically focused on Equal Opportunities issues. While the Urban Education (1993) report is praised for its attention to low expectations, inequities of funding, and ineffective assessment procedures, another 1993 report The Teaching and Learning of Reading and Writing in Reception Classes and Year 1 is taken apart. There are only three references to bilingual pupils in the report, and none of them will do: "indeed the report serves to legitimise low expectations of bilingual pupils."

There is more bad news in Pat Keel's chapter on resources; the tone is temperate, but the effect is chilling. Again the approach is historical, covering the ground from bussing and immersion units to Section 11 and the probable effects of the Single Regeneration Budget. The flaws in current policy and practice are clearly set out, in particular the way in which resources are targeted at the outcomes of fundamental inequities in the education system, instead of at their root causes.

As a source book for facts and figures, this book will appear on many teacher education reading lists; it is also a useful introduction to some of the contentious issues around bilingualism and multi-ethnic classrooms. But on the practice of assessment it has less to offer. There are plenty of horror stories (about "why Asian children can't learn to swim" for example) and urgent instruction in how not to do it. Celia Burgess-Macey, in particular, does a thorough demolition job on two examples of baseline assessment formats, which are clearly not in the interests of any children, black or white. However, the denunciations of bad practice are not backed up with a correspondingly rich account of the right kind of assessment.

There is still plenty to commend this book and its authors, not least their determination to make a case, to be heard. Given Dearing's apparent indifference to bilingualism, and to non-European languages, it is all the more important that practitioners like these should speak up for their concerns. Pat Keel's introduction describes how, over the last five painful years, "teachers have been trapped in silent acquiescence." Not these teachers.

Mary Jane Drummond is Tutor in Primary Education, University of Cambridge Institute of Education.

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