Education books

18th May 2001 at 01:00
When the national curriculum began, I stood with a Lincolnshire head looking out across some beautiful countryside. With a gesture towards the fields and the huge flatland skies, he said: "I just hope that it doesn't prevent us from following the path where it leads."

There was a lot of talk like that then, about the way that you'd no longer get local farmers coming into country schools with newborn lambs for the children to see. It's a mood that William Stephens captures well in The Gentle World of Childhood: starting school in England (Sentry Press, Tallahassee, Florida; UK distributor Thomas Lyster, tel: 01695 575112, pound;9.95). This celebration of life in a rural primary - "Mossford Green" - in the Seventies is really an extended interview with the head, "Edna", in which she recalls children, assemblies, lessons, parents, teachers - and Allan's dog, which came every lunchtime to take him home.

"I'd open the door and in he'd comeI Allan would reach out his hand and pat him. The tail would wag. But that was all. There was no disruption of the class, no playing with him. The dog would come at lunchtime, to take Allan home for lunch. And he would come again at the end of the day."

It's a delightful read, punctuated by the author's conclusions and comments. He's an American academic with an interest in moral education, who spent time in the UK. And although it's not obvious from the book, "Edna" was his late wife.

But I do have a problem with the assumption that there was once a golden age that is no more. Of the national curriculum, and the other changes since, William Stephens writes: "That this could occur to a great educational tradition - this is a caution to all of us."

If what he means is that there are no longer schools dedicated to "the gentle world of childhood," that dogs no longer come to seek their young friends, and that relationships are no longer sensitive, creative and warm, then he is mistaken, for all of those qualities are alive and well in British primary schools.

Among those who help teachers to build good relationships are th people who run Lucky Duck Publishing - their list is full of books and other materials that show deep understanding of children. From Lucky Duck comes The Good, the Bad and the Irritating by Nigel Mellor (pound;9). Targeted at parents, but no less useful to teachers, it's a down-to-earth guide to dealing with attention-seeking children, full of hope in what for some parents is a desperate world.

Misbehaviour works for the attention-seeking child, Dr Mellor points out, because it gets attention. "Do you like complaining, shouting, telling off, going on at your child?", he writes. "No, of course not. He makes you do something you don't want to do. For the moment he's in charge."

The solutions he advocates will be familiar to many teachers: praise, "catch him doing good", and so on. They are familiar solutions because they work, where nagging and punishment decidedly do not. But here the advice is given with understanding, warmth and a real appreciation of what life is like when you have an impossible child. A good addition to the learning support bookshelf.

Praise is another name for positive feedback, and in Feedback for Learning, edited by Susan Askew (RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99), we are reminded that indiscriminate praise often loses its value.

In a chapter by Eleanore Hargreaves, Bet McCallum and Caroline Gipps on teachers giving feedback in the primary classroom, a teacher points out that indiscriminate, unfocused praise is patronising - "truly they don't know what's good about whatever it is, they haven't been given any pointers or tips on how to improve."

Other chapters explore feedback at various levels - in secondary schools, between teachers, between schools and the authority. It'sa useful and readable volume in a relatively unexplored area.

Finally, as a good, quick educational reference book, John Clare's Education Answers (Constable pound;9.99), based on his Daily Telegraph column, works very well. Browsing is rewarded with good insights, facts you didn't know, the odd snort of disagreement and the occasional guffaw.

GERALD HAIGH


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