Education Books

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Does break time matter? Not to politicians, perhaps, who want longer hours at school and much more homework, and not perhaps to teachers, for whom it spells playground hassle and supervision chores. But what about to children - less free to play, perhaps, in our towns and cities, than at any time before?

To find the answers, Peter Blatchford spent 15 years studying a cohort of London children. His observations in Social Life in School (Falmer Pounds 14.95) make important and reassuring reading. Yes, of course it matters - especially perhaps at that infuriating adolescent stage when "hanging around" is more important than it often seems. Increasingly, break time is where pupils construct, for better or worse, their identity and their social world. The key finding is that individual schools have a significant effect in that equation. Interesting and enjoyable.

Teasing and name-calling are pervasive playground features, though seldom (according to Blatchford) in a homophobic context. Mary Harris, writing from an American perspective and drawing her data from a self-selected Internet discussion group, emphatically disagrees in School Experiences of Gay and Lesbian Youth (The Haworth Press $18. Tel: 001 607 722 5857. Fax: 001 607 722 6362). For most of her contributors, hostile and derogatory language is an educational constant in and out of class. Schools, they complain, are irredeemably heterosexist. It is difficult to fault their key conclusion - that the successful development of gay and lesbian students depends on "an overall environment of support for diversity".

For David Corson, that is true of all real education. In an interesting introductory chapter to his Changing Education for Diversity, the latest volume in the Changing Education series (Open University Press Pounds 15.99), he explores the contradictions in several education systems between growing diversity of need and an ever more centralised and homogenised range of provision. The truth, he suggests, is that education is getting more intolerant of diversity, not less - and he supports his thesis with international case studies of groups such as Aborigines, immigrant girls and minority language groups.

His chapter, "the urban poor" has particular relevance to British schools, and both educators and policy-makers badly need to read it.

One of Corson's central arguments is that educators either undervalue or fail to understand the street literacy that inner-city children often bring to classes. In this new edition of Twice as Less, Eleanor Wilson Orr sets out to show just how that happens in the case of clever black American children getting lost in mathematics (Norton Pounds 9.95). Her argument, based on examples from her own teaching, is that the phenomenon has nothing to do with either intelligence or genetics, but with the fact that black English gives to key prepositions in mathematics teaching - at, by, in, for, after - significantly different meanings from standard English. With the debate on Ebonics (Black American English) now raging in the United States, her case is bound to be contested. What is unanswerable, though, is that in comparison with mathematics even standard English can never be precise. Try her argument - and improve your mathematics.

Finally, back to the inner city - to St Anns in Nottingham, in fact, and to Elliott Durham and St Anns, edited by Ruth I Johns (Plowright Press Pounds 6.50). This is the story of the typical comprehensive school that serves the estate, painstakingly reconstructed from scraps of memory and report. We should look after our history, the author says, for "without history schools are at the mercy of prejudice and myth". Quite right - and she does a service to all of us in this cheerful and poignant reminder.

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