Education books

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Do you know what an idiot is? Or an imbecile? "Easy," you say, embarking on a list that includes your boyfriend, your washing machine mechanic and the driver who cut you up on the A40. But before you again use these terms casually, remember that for at least three-quarters of a century, they were neutral, technical labels for people of assumed low mental ability.

As recently as 1959, I was taught in college (though with some hesitation, for the flaws in the system were already apparent) that an imbecile was someone with an IQ of under, I think, 80, whereas an idiot's IQ was under 40.

This kind of labelling has immense educational and social implications. In The Making of the Backward Pupil in Education in England, 1870-1914 (Woburn Press pound;37.50) Ian Copeland describes how, in effect, the growth of compulsory elementary education actually brought about the notion of "backwardness", so that by 1913 the chief medical officer of the Board of Education could define five groups of children - "the child that is mentally normal, the dull or backward child, the feeble-minded child, the imbecile child, the idiot".

(Copeland draws our attention to the absence of the word "child" from the last category.) Copeland's dispassionate and scholarly study does not need to hammer home the continuing implications of that sort of thinking, for they speak for themselves.

So before you recoil in horror from this revelation of how children were once swept into the dustbin of "feeble-mindedness" (another label from that time), consider our present system, which defines pupils who cannot cope with "mainstream" as having "special educational needs". Consider, too, how, under the special needs code of practice, we allocate "SEN children" to various categories.

We rightly abhor use of "spastic" as a casual term of abuse. Ever since those college days I have tried to avoid using "idiot" or "imbecile" in that way either.

Copeland's book reminded me that I was trained as a teacher at the tail end of what might be called the "Intelligence Quotient" era. Alan Penn's Targeting Schools (Woburn Press pound;39.50, pound;17.50 paperback) reminds me in turn that at infants' school, we did "drill" rather than physical education. What I did not realise was that I was experiencing the remnants of a policy which, from 1870 to 1914, insisted that elementary school children should do real military drill as a preparation for possible future duties. Those in favour of drill, Penn tells us, included The Rev H W Bellairs, who wrote: "I should like to see a regular system of military drill introduced, with marching tunes and, where practicable, with drum and fife bands."

There was opposition, of course, particularly from the trades unions and other groups on what we would now call the liberal left, and the debates were furious and far-reaching. This is a fascinating and little-known story which explains a great deal, for example about how physical education came to occupy its present importance in the curriculum.

These two Woburn Press books are a reminder that we neglect the history of education at our peril. In History and Educational Policy Making (Yale University Press pound;28) Maris A Vinovskis makes this point explicitly.

This is an American book, but much of the story - that which deals with early childhood education for example - echoes British experience.

Finally, The Law of Education by Oliver Hyams (Sweet and Maxwell pound;85).

For some time now, publishers of education law reference books have been hampered by the speed at which legislation has been changing. Sweet and Maxwell has taken the plunge and given us this substantial work which claims to include all recent legislation. This is a book to be used, and makes no claim to being a riveting read. At times, though, particularly where it deals with what can go wrong, it makes you want to keep turning pages. Schadenfreude is a powerful vice.

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