Education books

17th November 2000 at 00:00
DEFYING DISAFFECTION: how schools are winning the hearts and minds of reluctant students. By Reva Klein. Trentham Books pound;10.95 (pbk).

EDUCATION AND SOCIAL JUSTICE. By Stephen Gorard. University of Wales Press pound;35

EDUCATION, EQUALITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS. Edited by Mike Cole. RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99.

COMBATING SOCIAL EXCLUSION THROUGH EDUCATION. Edited by Guido Walraven, Carl Parsons, Dolf van Veen and Chris Day Garant. pound;24 approx, distributed by Central books. Tel:020 8986 5488.

Many academics nowadays confuse good writing with something they call "polemic", for which they seem to assume they will be awarded penalty points by their vice-chancellors.

Happily, Reva Klein in Defying Disaffection (published last year and just out in a revised paperback edition) isn't tormented by such fears and she writes strikingly well. She ably discusses some roots of disaffection before going on to make a powerful case for changing the style, structure and curriculum of schools. Schools should, she says, put what Daniel Goleman calls "emotional intelligence" at the heart of the curriculum.

Drawing on case studies, mostly from the United States, Klein gives examples of fresh thinking about how schools can be organised to minimise dropout. She notes how in successful schools alienation has been reduced by overturning shibboleths about what makes for "effectiveness". The schools she examines have increased involvement and participation not via the cliches of effectiveness but through a variety of original means: through an emphasis on smallness, on family grouping, on summer programmes, on a 12-hour open day with flexible attendance.

Stephen Gorard, like Klein, is unimpressed with the insights to be gained from school effectiveness research. He says of the findings of such research in Education and Social Justice, "The factors making up a 'good' school are frequently rather nebulous or blindingly obvious and tautological." His book is fascinating for those interested in social epistemology, for it is about bad research, its promulgation and its acceptance.

Gorard picks a number of themes to show how analysis and interpretation can be distorted in research. This makes for a good, if disturbing, read. The only trouble with some analysts of an iconoclastic bent, including this author, is that they sometimes seem to radiate confidence (in their disavowal of others' work) that they themselves have found the sunlit path to True Knowledge.

Never mind, for even if one concentrates just on the critique, what remains is highly important and a significant contribution to educational research. By examining statistics used in many analyses, and by questioning certain large datasets, Gorard exposes some myths surrounding the crisis narrative of uch commentary on education.

Bringing together separate pieces of his own research, he suggests that in fact schools are becoming more socially mixed, that there is exaggeration in the reported extent of international variation in education systems, and that gaps between different groups of students are decreasing. This is all fascinating stuff and makes a surprisingly coherent whole. Whether Gorard was wise to choose social justice as the unifying theme for the book is another matter, however, for it isn't really about this.

Education, Equality and Human Rights comprises a compilation of contributions on the themes of its subtitle: race, gender, sexuality, special needs and social class. There are two chapters on each of these themes and some of them are excellent. Of particular note are Jane Martin's on gender, Richard Rieser's two chapters on disability discrimination and Richard Hatcher's on social class.

There is a serious tension in the organisation of the book, however, and this should perhaps have been discussed more. An emphasis on participation and inclusion should, it can be argued, eschew anything which helps the discriminative gaze to fix on particular groups. There are a number of problems with a group-focused approach in the context of participation and inclusion - a major one being that it can force categorisation where none is warranted and none needed. While this tension is raised at various points it is not really discussed fully enough.

A similar problem afflicts Combating Social Exclusion through Education where one of the contributors baldly states that "ResearchI has shown that at least two-thirds of excluded pupils have some identified level of SEN". Well, since "SEN" means little other than "not doing well at school" this is unsurprising. High levels of association can also be found between "identified SEN" and poverty, but this tells one as much about poverty as it does about exclusion - namely, virtually nothing. The invocation of "SEN" here as some kind of discrete group gives credence to it as an explanatory phenomenon of exclusion, which it emphatically is not.

This is an odd book, as I fear conference compilations are almost bound to be: it is cumbersome, jerks all over the place, and includes contributions which have no clear (or even covert) connection with the title. These are juxtaposed with others which are excellent, sadly for the latter. Some really original thinking is currently occurring on ways of combating exclusion in education and promoting social justice. Much of the work reported in these books contributes to that thinking and one hopes that it will help to move "inclusion" from rhetoric to reality.

Gary Thomas is professor in education at Oxford Brookes University.

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