Much of the long debate about comprehensive schooling missed the point. The real issue had to do not with labels, nor admission policies, but with what went on inside the buildings. The head who wanted to run the kind of comprehensive approved of by parents and the local authority had only to move the selection process in through the front door, and run a streamed organisation which produced an academic band capable of GCE and A-level, and a "remedial" department deemed successful if it kept its clients out of serious trouble. Any head who felt this perpetuated the old system, and that a genuine comprehensive should be unstreamed, faced an uphill struggle.
Lessons in Class by Dick Copland (Pounds 9.95 from TUPS Books, 30 Lime Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2PQ) is an account of one such battle, told by the man who fought it as head of Ryhope School in Sunderland from 1969 until its closure nearly 20 years later. Ryhope was born, as were so many schools at that time, from the amalgamation of a grammar and a secondary modern. Right from the start, Copland abolished prefects, staff gowns and the practice of addressing boys by their surnames. He also put a stop to corporal punishment - a gesture which guaranteed a row in the local press and lots of public hot air about "discipline".
For Copland, "it wasn't a matter for debate because it involved striking somebody with a piece of wood or other object which was unacceptable on moral grounds. It carried the implication that, ultimately, force is correct". Whatever else in our school system has remained unchanged, or has grown worse, I would guess that hardly any state school head or teacher would now disagree with Copland on this.
Copland realised that many pupils find school difficult to cope with, and that instead of labelling them as inadequate, we should look at how we teach them. Phil-lida Salmon develops this argument from a psychological perspective in Life at School (Constable Pounds 16.99). She makes the point that whereas in school we assume pupils to be ignorant, within the family we treat very young children differently. "Mothers talk as though their infants were already quite advanced... 'You want to give me the teddy? Oh thank you!' she says in response to her baby's waving arm."
As a result of these apparently absurdly high expectations, babies thrive and grow in confidence. The lesson is there for the taking.
The question How Shall We School Our Children?, which seems to follow naturally from this discussion, is the title of a collection of papers on primary education edited by Colin Richards and Philip H Taylor (Falmer Pounds 14.95).
Reflective rather than didactic in tone, the book brings together some high- profile contributors - Geoff Southworth, Jim Campbell, Mary Jane Drummond, Titus Alexander among them. They provide much to ponder on about leadership, organisation, classroom styles, the nature of childhood, parents, curriculum and standards.
Meanwhile, for many teachers there are more immediate challenges. In Refugee Education (Trentham Pounds 14.95) edited by Jill Rutter and Crispin Jones, writers discuss the needs of the 35,000 or so children who attend our schools while seeking asylum and refuge. Contributors look at successful initiatives and offer practical suggestions.
Finally, there is an opportunity, through a new edition, to look again at Sally Tomlinson's book analysing the education reforms of the Eighties and early Nineties: Educational Reform and its Consequences, Institute of Public Policy Research (Rivers Oram Pounds 9.95). It is a measure of the pace of change that her collection of papers by authors who include Paul Black and Eric Bolton, published in 1994, already has something of a dated feel. Its end-of-century equivalent, looking at Labour's policies, will soon be needed.