Education books

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
"Education is the future of our country" is a universal soundbite. What, though, is the future of education? Where are current policies leading? Janet McKenzie's argument in Changing Education: a sociology of education since 1944, (Prentice Hall pound;19.99) is that before we can begin to answer those questions we need a much better national understanding of where we are now.

That means analysing the context of change and the expectations and assumptions that frame it. Hence the need for what the author admits is "yet another book on education". But this is rather a good one. Primarily, it's a textbook for sociology undergraduates, but it is refreshingly clear and direct.

The first part outlines the concepts and arguments that have framed recent educational debate and the issues and systems that have resulted. The second looks at change since 1944 decade by decade and identifies the factors, rarely educational, that have driven it. Both accounts are illustrated from a longitudinal survey that records verbatim people's attitudes to, and memories of, education.

What is constant, the author says, is growing "immiseration". Why, she asks, is the climate of British education now so miserable? "It's the misery of knowing that you will always be regarded as defective in some way, always have to run to keep still, always be subject to unexpected change." Teachers who recognise the phenomenon and want to know its causes will appreciate this book. So will others, who just want to know what's hit them.

Titles can be misleading. Political Relationship and Narrative Knowledge by Peter B Armitage (Bergin and Garvey pound;45.95), for all its "micro-sociology" pretensions and its heavy freight of jargon, is not what it seems to be. Even the subtitle - "a critical analysis of school authoritarianism" - is deceptive. Essentially, this is a personal apologia - the narrative, as Armitage sees it, of how he came to be dismissed from his school for taking "political action" to improve it.

The "as he sees it" is important. Strip aay the layers of pseudo-academic clutter and you have a one-sided view of a classic 1970s scenario. Grammar school goes comprehensive, tensions fester, head muddles through, is criticised, leaves. New head worse than old. (He held fire practices, "an indication of his cultural priorities".) Grammar school teacher hero bombards head and governors with thesis-length complaints, then tries round robins, but meets "irrational opposition" at every step. Teacher hero is warned but perseveres. Hero sacked.

That does less than justice to the complexities of the story. Armitage's position is simple: he was in the right. "Educational progress results from conflict," he argues. "Conflict is good." This is narrative as tragedy, but as a curiosity it makes fascinating reading. It isn't, however, at any level, the critical analysis that the author calls it.

Besides, the world moves on. Education, Policy and Ethics by Mike Bottery (Continuum pound;16.99) is a reminder there is more to concern us now than authoritarian heads. It is globalisation, Mike Bottery argues, that is really transforming schools , not government diktat. Managerialism is all but universal; schools are being "McDonaldised" in the quest for efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.

School effectiveness will cancel out the tiresome inequalities of poverty and birth; democratic participation is losing ground to consumer rights; public education is threatened as a sort of restraint of trade; the teacher's role is increasingly bounded within his or her school.

This is a disturbing forecast, but Bottery insists it isn't science fiction. So what do teachers do about it? We have to look beyond our schools to recognise the forces that are working - the message that Janet McKenzie is preaching in Changing Education. In our schools we have to recreate a sense of the public good. And, Bottery argues, we should be campaigning for a curriculum that is focused on citizenship, not one that adds it on as just another subject.


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