Generally in favour of spirited polemic

10th October 1997 at 01:00
VIEWPOINTS: Contemporary Issues for Discussion. By John Foster. Collins Pounds 29.95.

There is growing interest in the A-level general studies examination. At best, the course provides some of the breadth that the traditional three A-level diet fails to offer; at worst, it boosts those all important league table ratings.

The trouble is that it takes a polymath with access to a well-stocked school library to teach it, and both of these are in short supply. A welcome then for the latest volume from the indefatigable John Foster. Viewpoints does hard-pressed schools a very useful service. Subtitled "Contemporary Issues for Discussion", it consists of a photocopiable selection of the opinions and arguments of newspapers, pressure groups and commentators on 10 subjects of debate chosen because of the moral and ethical dilemmas they pose.

The issues range from the arms trade to euthanasia and include, for example, abortion, homosexuality, drug abuse, crime and punishment, and the national lottery. The extracts, which are mainly taken from the broadsheets' comment pages, are intercut with news stories and items from the letters columns. The level is serious without being too demanding, and the pieces are short enough to be read and debated fully in the limited time that schools can provide for general studies.

As a bonus, they offer some spirited polemic. Students will enjoy, for example, former editor Simon Jenkins, attacking in The Times, the criminalisation of teenage homosexual acts as "a law aimed at the public lavatories, not at the public schools"; or film director Michael Winner and ex-con John McVicar debating in The Big Issue what McVicar calls "the snitch phone lines of the new Tell Sir society"; or journalist Libby Purves, in The Times again, on our careless attitude to abortion: "It is when the facts are suddenly dramatised for us - when we wake up in the gutter and as the old story goes the pig gets up and walks away - that we cringe at ourselves."

The great virtue of of these well-chosen extracts is that they do "suddenly dramatise the facts". They will make both teachers and students think and argue. Each selection is accompanied by suggestions for discussion ("What are the moral objections to animal-to-human organ transplants?") essay titles from general studies papers and addresses (from both sides of the debate) for further information. There is material here for at least a term of lively, probably heated, lessons.

One minor reservation. By the very fact of their topicality the argument on these issues has inevitably moved on. The debate on the future of the monarchy, for example, has taken on a new dimension since the death of Princess Diana. So has that on the arms trade - and recent developments have similarly sharpened issues such as euthanasia and animal rights. That does not in the least invalidate this material - indeed, it points more sharply to its relevance. But it does mean that teachers will need their own press-cuttings too, to reflect and focus the more recent experiences of their students. Start collecting! It could, after all, be the making of a further volume.

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