Education books

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Prisons can be terrifying places. Birmingham jail, for instance - formerly known as Winson Green - was in the news last month when the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, presented a report condemning the prison as "depressing and disturbing". The report painted a picture of an institution that could have come straight from Dickens. It's difficult to see how education can thrive in such environments, but there are people there who strive to keep learning alive.

Why educate prisoners anyway? To keep them quiet? Give them hope? Help them get jobs that will keep them from coming back? The answers differ, of course, depending on who you ask - government ministers, the governor, the "screws" or the prisoners.

Prison(er) Education, edited by David Wilson and Anne Reuss (Waterside Press pound;18) is a collection of essays on these questions by people involved - lecturers, researchers, prisoners.

One of the most interesting contributions is that of Petra MacGuinness, a teacher at HMP Whitemoor, who writes of "learning in order to maintain sanity, to mark time and to stave off the hopelessness".

But the words of the prisoners are the most striking. "There are those prison officers, politicians, governors, board of visitors members, et al, who will quite openly state that in their opinion any form of education or training for inmates is a direct dereliction of authority," writes one inmate.

Another prisoner shows us the other side of the same coin: "This classroom is the most beautiful place in this prison. You can be yourself, you're respected, you can almost imagine you're not in prison."

In Racial Equality: education and Punjabis in Britain, Sujinder Singh Sangha, of City College, Birmingham (Punjabi Guardian Press, pound;9.50 from 125 Soho Road, Handsworth, Birmingham B21 9TT), offrs an illuminating analysis of events in the UK generally, and Birmingham in particular. He's particularly good on the history of Sikh participation in trades unions, pointing out the existence of an Indian Workers' Association in Coventry as long ago as 1938, which, as late as 1966, was battling against racially segregated toilets and washrooms in some factories.

"Inclusion" is a key word in today's educational vocabulary, and Carol Vincent's Including Parents? (Open University Press pound;16.99 pbk, pound;55 hbk) asks a question that has always been yo-yoing up and down the educational agenda: just what are the reasons for parental involvement in school?

As Carol Vincent writes: "Parental involvement in education is widely assumed to be 'a good thing'I (yet) it remains unclear what types of home-school interaction are most desirable and, particularly pertinent to this discussion, what the purposes and aims of such involvement are."

Schools used to assume - perhaps they still do - that home-school relationships existed to persuade parents that the school's aims and methods were the right ones. Carol Vincent shifts the emphasis to look at grassroots organisations that have education as their focus. She gives case studies of "parent-centred organisations" - an advice centre, a parent education group, a self-help group for AfricanCaribbean parents and a pressure group on school funding. Their differences illustrate the difficulty of pinning down exactly what parental involvement means.

It's a complicated story, involving issues such as class and the distribution of power. But it shows that through such groups, bound by common interests, we begin to see how citizens can engage with issues that have traditionally been the territory of professionals or full-time politicians.


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