Education books;Books;Reviews;Features amp; arts

5th November 1999 at 00:00
There's a nice cartoon on the cover of State Schools, New Labour and the Conservative Legacy (Woburn Press pound;16.50). A gowned and mortar-boarded headteacher (unmistakably Lady T) is handing a prize to a beaming, blazered student (unmistakably Master Blair). The prize is a neat scroll of Conservative education policies.

The argument of editors Clyde Chitty and John Dunford is that Prime Minister Blair is too closely attached to his predecessors' education policies. Their fear is that, Third Way notwithstanding, he has no intention of letting their essentials go. As contributors Peter Downes and Heather du Quesnay show, those policies brought opportunities as well as energy-sapping pressure to schools and local education authorities. On balance, though, the threats are seen as greater. Marketisation and competition still weaken the schools most in need of support; the curriculum and examination system is still archaic and overloaded; centralisation remains inflexible and funding remains perverse; more than ever, "threats and regulation define the system".

Teachers are now no more than "efficient employees" (a powerful chapter, this, by Martin Lawn). Only a commitment to "stakeholding" - in deeds not words, the editors say - will resolve these powerful tensions.

John Quicke has deeper reservations. In A Curriculum for Life (Open University Press pound;16.99) he argues that neither the traditionalist national curriculum ("largely unsuccessful") nor the skills-based enterprise curriculum ("a nonsense which puts the cart before the horse") begin to address today's learners' most urgent needs in their "complex, increasingly differentiated, pluralistic and rapidly changing world".

He urges an areas-of-experience model, built around self-identity, collaboration, the family, cultural pluralism and work and economic life; based on a vision of democratic society very different from today's blend of market individualism and state control.

His tone is more philosophical than pragmatic, and his sometimes powerful critique of schools pays less attention than it should to the state and market forces that more than ever shape them. That said, this is an optimist's book. Any remaining optimists should read it.

It is not only students of education who will find Key Concepts in the Philosophy of Education by Christopher Winch and John Gingell (Routledge pound;12.99) invaluable. Professional jargon is a growing barrier between educational academics and researchers and the teachers who should be their most important audience.

This short handbook explains some of the concepts educational philosophers use in terms lay people can understand. It also explains the nature of the arguments that surround those concepts. At this level, a few more definitions would not have gone amiss. Most of the terms are those that we use all the time but think about rarely, such as "discipline" and "knowledge". This book is an aid to thought, not just interpretation.

The same is true in spades of Postmodernism in Educational Theory, edited by Dave Hill, Peter McLaren, Mike Cole and Glenn Rikowski (Tufnell Press pound;15). This has an intriguing subtitle: "Education and the Politics of Human Resistance". It is a book for specialists, but its central theme (that education is of necessity a political activity) is one that needs debate outside the walls of academia.

The argument, from writers philosophically on the Left, is that fashionable postmodernism, scorning as it does the passions and crusades of the so-called modern era, is inadequate as a basis for educational politics and educational practice alike. Jenny Bourne's contribution ("Racism, Postmodernism and the Flight from Class") is an apposite and commendably accessible example.

Finally, and not before time, a book about children and their needs. Louise Porter's Gifted Young Children (Open University Press pound;15.99) is written to help teachers and parents identify young children with advanced potential and to develop that potential in the light of the child's social, emotional and learning needs. It is wise, sensible, reassuring and clear. Check out, for example, the sections on "resilience" and "self-esteem". Strongly recommended.

Michael Duffy.

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