Education books

20th February 1998 at 00:00
History is the battlefield of Roy Lowe's Schooling and Social Change 1964-1990 (Routledge #163;45, #163;14.99). Here, the national curriculum clash over the subject's content ("little more than national propaganda") is seen as symbolising a more fundamental struggle between schooling as empowerment and schooling as control.

Lowe's thesis is that in educational terms the revolution of these years was largely illusory. The function of education, he says, has been to legitimise the structure of society. School performance has always reflected the realities of social change - poverty, housing, social mobility, race and gender assumptions - but has by design had no significant effect upon them. Interesting, controversial and possibly - in ignoring, for instance, the damage caused by teachers' "industrial action" - slightly partial.

The subject of Jeremy Potter's Headmaster: The Life of John Percival, Radical Autocrat (Constable #163;20) would have challenged Lowe's argument. John Percival - founder head of Clifton College, head of Rugby, principal of Trinity, Oxford, and founder of Somerville, finally a bishop - was by any standards an eminent Victorian.

Aloof, self-righteous, autocratic, he believed absolutely in education's capacity to distil good from evil and achievement from neglect. He pioneered school science (four of his appointees at Clifton went on to become Fellows of the Royal Society) campaigned for girls' and women's education and university extension colleges, repeatedly tried to open Clifton to children of all classes, and was a co-founder of the Workers' Educational Association. What he expected of others - "Work and Duty!" - was no more than he demanded of himself. He was respected, even feared, but he made few friends. Potter's biography captures the achievement, but not always the contradictions, of this remarkable figure.

If Percival wanted change, he decreed it. The approach is not extinct, as The Gender Politics of Educational Change (Falmer Press #163;14.95) unintentionally shows. It describes a major improvement project in a Midwest high school, conceived and planned by a (predominantly female) "ideas team" and opposed and thwarted by a group (entirely male) of reactionaries. Amanda Datnow's argument is that this is a case study in "gender factionalism". It could equally well be a case study of poor management. The chapter where the new principal puts the proposals of the ideas team to the staff makes sobering reading. So does the one where he resigns.

Secondary Modern Adventure! A History of Littleover School, Derby by Franklin Tapp (from Clulows Ltd, 18 Irongate, Derby #163;7.95) has a very different context. Littleover Secondary School was a product of the 1944 Education Act - the first purpose-built secondary modern school in Derbyshire. Franklin Tapp, its headteacher, kept all his logbooks and on retirement in 1969 wrote up his story, now privately published.

It is a labour of love. All the staff and hundreds of the children are affectionately remembered. Inevitably, the narrative is rose-coloured. It is not without interest, though, as a record of that optimistic post-war period. Tapp says that the community was proud of its school. Reading his sometimes naive but moving story you can easily believe him.

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