Education books

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
There is no place for social scruple, John Rae says in Letters to Parents: How to Get the Best Available Education for Your Child (HarperCollins Pounds 16.99). "If you want a good education for your child in contemporary Britain you have to fight for it every inch of the way."

There are good state schools and there are bad independent schools; the secret is to tell which of them is which. The good schools are the ones with the best A-level results. They are academically or socially selective; of necessity they should be independent or GM. The advice, presumably, is "pay up - or move". Whether it is good advice is a different matter. Perceptive readers might note that much of what Rae says about the state schools is simply wrong, and that his advice on headship (the crucial factor!) is long out-of-date. It is 12 years since he left Westminster School. Sometimes it shows.

For some, choice is not at the top of the agenda. There are some 60,000 Somali refugees in Britain, and in parts of London the Somali community is the largest ethnic group. In hundreds of our schools deeply traumatised children struggle to come to terms with learning. Inevitably, their teachers have little understanding of the pressures that they face or of their cultural and social situation. Educating Somali Children in Britain by Mohammed Kahin (Trentham Books Pounds 9.95) is designed to fill this gap. It briefly profiles Somalia ("Cape Aromatica", the Romans called it, from the myrrh and spices it produced) and its people, outlining the disastrous history of the past 10 years, and dispassionately describing the experience of children who as refugees lose both identity and childhood. There is excellent advice on their unique learning needs and there are moving and heart-warming individual histories. The author makes a strong case for more bilingual teaching. Above all, he says, teachers should build on the rich oral tradition Somalis enjoy.

And what better way to do that than by using A Song for Carrying Water (Gatehouse Books Pounds 6)? This is a collection of poems and folk tales told by Somali women living in Manchester, and printed here on facing pages in English and Somali. The stories are beautifully illustrated, simple, sad, funny, wholly delightful. There are also background teacher's notes, but the pages speak for themselves. There can be few better ways of learning together.

Less fun to read but undeniably important is Rethinking Education and Democracy (the Hillcote Group, Tuffnell Press Pounds 7.95). Subtitled "A socialist alternative for the twenty-first century", it could be the White Paper that a less conservative Labour Government might have drafted. Commendably, it exposes the convenient myth that "standards" have nothing to do with structure, and it attacks the current culture of command and control and the calculated inequalities of specialisation, choice and selection.

Education is more than a market commodity, the authors say; it is a fundamental social and individual entitlement. That said, this is more of a wish-list than a blueprint.

But it does remind us that education is a social process as much as a cognitive one. In the increasingly dirigiste climate of teacher education, where we are told that to become a teacher it is enough to observe what other teachers do and then replicate it, that is a near heretical point of view. All the more reason to welcome a new edition of Cassell's excellent A Sociology of Educating (by Roland Meighan and Iram Siraj-Blatchford Pounds 19.99), updated to cover both the Thatcher years (when there was "no such thing as society", remember) and the newly important agendas of ethnicity, gender and special needs. Otherwise, the mix is the same: a very readable introduction to sociology itself, and a lively and persuasive analysis of the way that sociological factors condition our assumptions about schools, curriculum, assessment and performance.

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