Education books

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Like the poor, disaffected children are always with us - although now, of course, the terms are different. The former are the "socially excluded", the latter are now Pupils with Problems (Trentham pound;13.95). In his book, James Garner argues that these labels are politically convenient. Who, he asks, decides that it's the pupils who have the problems?

His question sets the tone for a vigorous and sometimes scathing analysis of what is happening, within the rhetoric of "inclusion", to children whose difficulties are as old as education is itself.

It is bizarre, he says, to pretend, as New Labour does, that schools alone can solve these problems - but it is equally bizarre to pretend that schools, teachers and policies do not sometimes contribute to them. It was Dr Johnson, after all, who observed, "you teach your daughters the diameters of planets and wonder what you have done that they do not delight in your company".

Garner's plea is for less labelling, less statutory guidance, less "assertive discipline" - just naming and shaming, he says - and less "curricular authoritarianism". The organisation and ethos of the school are the crucial determinants of pupil behaviour, he says. What works best is "whole-school thinking" about turning children on. We used to call it child-centred education.

School exclusion and truancy are sure signs of disaffection, and Improving School Attendance (edited by Eric Blyth and Judith Milner, Routledge, pound;16.99) documents effective strategies for dealing with them. Beverley Lewis, describing what works best in city primary schools, and Bob Johnson, describing his own experience in a disadvantaged secondary school, both have particular encouragement to offer.

The editors stress the real dimensions of the problem, and that market forces and league tables may have worsened it. Policy makers, they add, must be more sensitive to the pressures on schools and teachers, who face "enormous demands and layer on layer of blame". Above all, they must rethink the nature of the curriculum.

Both these messages are powerfully repeated in Changing Teachers' Work by Gill Helsby from the Open University's Changing Education series (Open University Press pound;15.99). Gill Helsby describes a teaching profession that has been "pushed, pulled, moulded, twisted and sometimes broken" by the process of educational "reform". The agenda of reform, she says, was international, and so was most of the gospel - but it was in England that it was most draconian, and most dismissive of teachers.

She illustrates her argument by comparing the Department of Employment's Technical and Vocational Education Initiative with the national curriculum, the highly prescriptive riposte of the Department of Education and Science. It was one of the intentions of the latter, she argues, to diminish the teacher's role to what it has now become - that of "a managed and expendable employee".

She doesn't quote in her extensive bibliography Brian Simon's history of British education since 1944, Education and the Social Order, now available in paperback (Lawrence and Wishart pound;16.99). For those who can bear to be reminded of the details of the push towards the marketisation and commodification and (paradoxically) centralisation of education, this is fascinating and compulsive reading.

But privatisation still has its adherents. Andrew J Coulson wishes to be among them. His Market Education: The Unknown History (Transaction pound;41.95, orders on 0207 240 0856) is written primarily for an American readership. Drawing on evidence from Athens and Sparta and bureaucratic Rome, to the Muslim Empire and Mrs Thatcher's England, he claims that free educational markets serve the public's needs and state-run systems don't.

Some will find neither his history (which omits the part played by public schools in turning millions of immigrants into American citizens) nor his arguments ("Who today would seriously consider buying a Model T Ford as a commuter vehicle?") convincing, but the scale of his research is impressive.

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