Education books

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
There is a teacher supply crisis. Teachers are leaving in their droves and too few are coming forward to replace them. It's not because of salaries either. According to John Cosgrove, it is because the job is changing. Of course teaching is stressful, he says; it always was, and of course it is about change. But the years of ill-planned change and systematic denigration are turning it into something that is too often impossible. Faced with this, teachers tend to react by working even harder - the road to panic, depression and breakdown.

Cosgrove writes as a deputy head with 20 years' experience; what he says in Breakdown: the facts about stress in teaching (RoutledgeFalmer pound;11.99) is disturbing and convincing. His advice to schools and teachers is eminently sensible. But by his calculations at least 100,000 children are being taught by teachers suffering from depression, locked into a spiral of irritability and aggression. The message of this angry yet essentially optimistic book is that policy changes are needed.

But will they happen? The thrust of Reconstructing Teaching: standards, performance and accountability by Pat Mahony and Ian Hextall (Routledge pound;16.99) is that the stress-inducing changes Cosgrove itemises have been deliberate: part of a calculated (and indeed international) policy of imposing input-output managerialism across the public sector. Teachers had to be brought under control, and in the first half of this book the authors show how the various parts of the jigsaw - the curriculum and tests, the hierarchy of teaching standards, the inspection regime and performance management - operate and complement each other. "Everyone polices everyone," is how they put it.

They go on to examine the limitations of this new orthodoxy: its failure to address the social and ethical context of teaching, the loss of democratic control, the blurring of the publicprivate sectors, the disempowerment of teachers and the failure to address the crucial question of motivation. It doesn't have to be like this, they say: it's time to move on from "the politics of ruthlessness" and engage everybody (incuding teachers) in the debate.

For John Abbott and Terry Ryan, authors of The Unfinished Revolution (Network Educational Press pound;26.95), it is more than time to move on. They see all the current mantras of education as fundamentally flawed because they focus on teaching rather than learning, diminish creativity and inhibit collaboration. They argue that we have failed to recognise the lessons that neuroscience and psychology have given us in how best we learn; our one-size-fits-all obsession is utterly outdated. What we need are learning communities, not schools, and open-ended "cognitive apprenticeships that work with the natural structures of the brain".

It is an interesting if somewhat repetitive theme. What it lacks is any reference to the social and political implications of the argument - any hint of how, in practical terms, we get from where we are now to where we need to be.

The huge merit of Roger Crombie White's excellent The School of Tomorrow: values and vision (Open University Press pound;15.99) is that it raises the same concerns in the context of what students themselves want in their learning and what visionary educators have shown they can achieve.

The concerns aren't new. White prefaces his detailed survey of Year 11 student perceptions with extended quotations from Edward Blishen's superb 1967 collection, The School that I'd Like. Standing out above everything, Blishen reported, was the children's desire to teach themselves rather than to be the passive targets of teaching. "They want to take risks, to be at risk, intellectually and emotional."

Nothing has changed, except perhaps that today's students are more appreciative of what their schools and teachers do. To that extent it's a positive message. But their comments comprise an agenda for action that schools and teachers need to listen to - policy-makers too. And what runs through the extended interviews afterwards, with Professors Tim Brighouse, Ted Wragg and Richard Pring, with Anita Higham and Nick Tate (David Blunkett too), is a conviction that we have the capacity to make the changes.


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