In brief

5th September 2003 at 01:00
A Dictionary of British Education. By Peter Gordon and Denis Lawton. Woburn Press pound;18.50 (hardback pound;37.50).

This is the first dictionary of British education written for teachers and parents rather than for academics. Not that academics won't find it useful.

Peter Gordon and Denis Lawton have long careers at the London Institute to draw upon: few people are better qualified to tease out the difference between, say, "ability" and "aptitude".

There's a short introduction to "British education" and an equally short list of landmarks in the development of English education - four pages to cover the years from 1802 to 1982 and four more pages, tellingly, for the hectic years since then. The ministers and secretaries of state responsible for education over this period are listed, too. As an appendix there's a wonderfully comprehensive list of acronyms. No dates are given for their period of currency: a pity, for the acronym as educational tool is really very recent. The bulk of the book, though, is an alphabetical list of terms, definitions and contexts. Everything is here, briefly explained - all the words that as educationists we simply can't dispense with: the jargon.

All the educational organisations are included too, and most of the great controversies. What you won't find (unless they attach their names to a commission or report) are some who left their stamp on the teaching profession. Clegg, Sir Alexander (of West Riding fame), is therefore out; Clegg, Professor Hugh (Salary Comparability Report, 1979), is in.

It's more than a work of reference. For teachers, parents and governors - and some lay readers, too - it is a sort of route map as well. It describes the terrain we've covered, as well as the immediate landscape. Given that educational policy is often circular (see, for example, "payment by results") that could be more than useful.

The Class Size Debate: is small better?

By Peter Blatchford. Open University Press pound;16.99.

When Ofsted said in 1995 that class size makes little difference to learning, teachers were angry and bemused. There was little research available to support or disprove the claim; by definition, such research would have to be on a long-term basis. Researchers at London University's Institute of Education resolved to fill the gap, and this is the account of exactly how they did it.

As the book makes clear, it's a complex issue. What about all the other factors that affect children's learning? What about teaching styles and teaching assistants, for instance, or peer groups or in-class groupings? All of these were factored in to the institute's study of children's progress in the first four years of schooling. The researchers concluded that progress is not, as politicians quickly claimed after Ofsted's well-publicised report, simply down to quality of teaching. Especially in the reception year, class size did make a difference. Class size alone, however, is not the crucial factor. Rather, it's the way that teachers manage their smaller classes: their use of grouping, for example, and classroom support; their response to interruptions and distractions. Small classes don't always make such things easy. So Ofsted was right, perhaps? Up to a point, Lord Copper, up to a point.

We Don't Play with Guns Here: war, weapon and superhero play in the early years By Penny Holland. Open University Press pound;14.99.

You can hear the authentic voice of the early years teacher in the title - the conventional (and essentially female) response to the fact that boys like playing aggressive war and hero games. Penny Holland (who admits she used to share it) calls it zero tolerance.

It is, of course, very much part of feminist discourse. But is it justifiable? Penny Holland argues that it's not: that it actually strengthens gender stereotyping ("boys will be boys and girls sit nicely") and that it doesn't help either boys or girls make sense of their identities. Unmediated zero tolerance offers adults a way to avoid dealing both with children's needs and the social issues that underpin them, she says. It means imposing our hang-ups on our children - colonising their fantasy worlds.

But her book is much more than assertion. Essentially it is a research account of what happens when teachers abandon zero tolerance and let children play the fantasy games they want to. Eight of the nine schools studied reported positive benefits. Boys have more fun, role play is more imaginative, and there's much less tension.

And the girls? Well, they have their magic wands, of course. Why do we perceive magic wands as somehow less nasty than death-ray guns? Read further in this fascinating and important book.

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