Charting a world of difference

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Ted Wragg sees how visionaries vie with supporters of current orthodoxy in a collection of writings on the future of education

Education for a Change: transforming the way we teach our children

Edited by Titus Alexander and John Potter

RoutledgeFalmer pound;14.99

There has been a continuing and uninterrupted political orthodoxy in education for at least two decades. In the face of an unremitting authoritarian state drive, individual teachers and heads have tried to get on with life according to common sense and local knowledge of their context: the age and background of the children they teach, what seems to work well, the communities they serve and the needs and aspirations of individuals.

Meanwhile governments, Conservative and Labour, flog on with heavily imposed, centrally determined policies: tests and league tables, initiatives and wheezes, sticks and carrots (or "pressure and support" in the twee jargon of New Labour). Leaving aside the issue of who is due credit for the good parts of this persistent drive, the result is a mixture of genuine improvement and clenched-buttocks tension between professionals and the state.

The indefinite article in the title Education for a Change is presumably intended to be ambiguous, suggesting that (a) it is time to move in a new direction and (b) people are sick of the emphasis on political, rather than educational, aspirations. The book addresses its title via 39 "tracts" and one manifesto. These are set out in seven chapters, covering such topics as the nature of change, learning matters, the educators of tomorrow and the need to engage young people. Each of the first six chapters also begins with a letter, addressed to the reader, parents, governors, councillors, teachers and young people, respectively, an interesting and novel feature.

The contributors are varied, both in what they write and in its profundity.

Most of them, including the editors, who write numerous tracts including the six chapter letters, are leaders of institutions and pressure groups of various kinds. One or two are headteachers, others work in prominent positions in public service. The class teacher's voice is surprisingly rare, which is a pity. With 40 think-pieces to play with, it might have been a good idea for the editors to enlist the viewpoint of a few front-line practitioners.

Early in the book, in tract 3, is a "new readers begin here" account of education under New Labour. It is largely factual, rather more approving of recent policies than pieces by the other writers, some of whom have scant respect for current tenets. The editors make several more challenging contributions throughout the book.

The most interesting pieces are those written by imaginative visionaries, such as Tim Brighouse, chief adviser for London schools, who looks ahead to the year 2050, when inventive teachers, aided by an army of professionals and support staff, will unlock children's minds. Tony Hinckley, former director of the 21st Century Education Project, foresees federations of learning centres open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ex-head Tamsyn Imison wants schools to become genuine communities of learners, with heads and teachers as inquisitive as the children they teach.

Other contributors are more rooted in current orthodoxies, inching the agenda only slightly forwards, finding it difficult to leap outside the framework set by politicians. It is change of a sort, but not necessarily one to gladden the hearts of teachers longing to be free of government initiative 127b.

Some writers describe familiar scenery in a future form and try to advance practice in a more linear manner, rather than take a leap sideways into the less well known. As with all ideas, it will depend how schemes develop.

Circle time, described by Jenny Mosely, who pioneered the notion of children publicly discussing feelings and behaviour in class, is a handy way of involving children in what has too often been the sole domain of adults, but its development will succeed only in the right hands.

Misapplied, it can become self-indulgent and unnecessarily time-consuming.

The chapter on schools of the future contains some interesting explorations. John Potter, one of the editors, looks at winners and losers in a society experiencing the tensions of public versus private provision, the market versus regulation. This chapter is mainly speculation about the future of academies, specialist schools, extended education and village colleges, themes taken up by other authors.

Brighouse wants a family of schools in each area, while Phil Street, head of the extended schooling organisation Continyou, foresees a rich fare of out-of-hours activities. Erik Stein, project manager in Barking and Dagenham, and Roz Bird, business development manager for the Science Park Association, describe their vision of town schools and Henry Morris-style Cambridgeshire village colleges.

Some of the tracts are far too brief. The pity of this is that some of these shorties are from well known visionary figures, who stop soon after they have started. Spiritual ecologist Satish Kumar argues that small is beautiful in one page. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs also writes a single page about the need to honour teachers. Environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt pleads for "education to save the planet" in just three paragraphs.

Presumably the whole solar system would need three pages.

As someone who knows Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, and has spent time in her hilarious company, I can tell you that her 14 lines on "the habit of freedom" is much too brief. It is not widely known that she started her career as an art teacher. Ideas about education, and much else, usually pour out of her in an unstoppable torrent. At the very moment when this reader was thinking, "Come on, Anita, go for it", the piece was over. Busy people, understandably, often want to do something significant, rather than merely write about putative action, but even two pages would have been more satisfying.

Mixed bag though this book is, I cannot imagine many readers being unable to find stimulus about the future of education somewhere in its 40 pieces, though I would still like to have heard the voices of visionary front-line teachers alongside those of institution heads. The editors have provided safe orthodoxy for the cautious, alongside more revolutionary ideas for those with a sense of adventure.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University.The TES four-week series of magazines on "What is Education For?" continues until February 11. This week: Teaching and Learning

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