Education books

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Chris Woodhead believes, surprisingly, that sociologists infected the nation's classrooms with left-wing progressivisim. The truth, as a contributor to Teaching Popular Culture (edited by David Buckingham, UCL Press pound;12.95) wryly admits, is that there has always been "an unbridgeable gulf" between the rhetoric of radical theorists and the messy realities of the classroom.

Indeed one of the purposes of this collection of essays, subtitled "Beyond Radical Pedagogy", is to ask where it all went wrong. Its downbeat conclusion is: "We must have been doing something right if these people are trying to stop us." There are particularly sharp essays from Carmen Luke, though, on the inconsistencies of feminist pedagogy and from Ben Green on the way that post-modernist approaches confuse "learning" and "knowledge".

One of the arguments of Children and Social Competence: arenas of action (edited by Ian Hutchby and Jo Moran-Ellis, Falmer pound;14.95) is that childhood itself is increasingly an artificial construct. "Adult-defined discourses of social institutions," the editors say, "may function to constrain and constrict children in institutional terms." Philip Larkin put it more pungently ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad"), but the point's the same. We deem children to be incompetent - and then treat them so. This collection draws on research to suggest that children are much more capable with the material and technology world and with each other than teachers easily admit.

Susan Gingras Fitzell has little time for subtleties like this. As a parent and teacher she is sharply aware of children's capacity to suffer and inflict distress. In Free the Children! (New Society Publishers, UK distributor Jon Carpenter Publishing, Charlbury, Oxon pound;11.99) she urges confident intervention. Her recipe is roughly equal parts of discipline, morality and support, and lots of social and media education. The style is American homespun anecdotal, but there's advice here - about bullying, for example, or television violence, or conflict resolution - that lots of parents and teachers badly need. She is readable, optimistic and level-headed - particularly good on dealing with negative self-image and with the awkward paradox that children need to experience responsibility to become responsible.

That paradox is the starting point of Bernard Trafford's Participation Power-sharing and School Improvement (Educational Heretics Press pound;9.95) a personal account, originally written for a PhD, of what happened when a highly traditional boys' grammar school was gently pushed towards more "democratic structures and teaching styles". It was at first, as Trafford admits, a very bumpy process. The minutes of early school council meetings are rich in staffroom reservations and impossible student expectations. But Trafford persevered, overcame most of the former, quoted the Rolling Stones to the latter ("You can't always get what you want!") and was able to document improvements in atmosphere and classroom performance.

For Nicki Archer, headteacher until 1983 of the independent and "progressive" King Alfred's School, London, and broadcaster and journalist to boot, participation and power-sharing proved bumpier still. Skilful and tough-minded, she fell foul of parent-dominated governors who wanted to determine not just policy but day-to-day management and teaching style. In Ahead of her Time (Clayton-Wright Publishers, Alcombe, Minehead, Somerset pound;12.99) her husband, John Stafford Archer, affectionately and sometimes angrily tells her story. What is interesting, even now, is that so much of it is bang up to date.

Michael Duffy

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