'Great fun to read but not to be taken seriously';Book of the week;Reclaiming Education by James Tooley;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Professor Tim Brighouse, chief education officer, Birmingham LEA

Reclaiming Education is a good and stimulating read, but for all its beguiling and attractive style, the arguments it contains will do little for Tooley's already waning influence on policy-makers.

The gospel according to James consists of the three Fs: freedom, family and philanthropy. His cranky solutions stem from a misplaced optimism about markets, unfounded pessimism about the state and misguided idealism about the family. Indeed, Tooley's exaggerated faith in the family, he acknowledges, requires a change in the divorce laws; families will then, apparently, be able to provide a really good start to every child's life.

But wait a minute, James. Are you saying that the state should interfere in the regulations affecting the family in order not to get involved in schooling? And do you really think that with your magic wand you are going to change the life-chances of children born to teenage mothers in either loosely coupled relationships or no relationship at all, in apparently irretrievable debt, sometimes fleeing from violence and with no idea where the next meal is coming from? Well, no, in fairness he believes that philanthropy will step in and rescue the third of children born into poverty, who live in the inner-city or the outer-ring estate wastelands that disfigure our urban landscapes. Philanthropy and the markets.

He clearly spends too much time in Newcastle University library and not enough on the Blakelaw and Cowgate estates currently featuring in Channel 4's Making the Grade, where the youngsters spend the 85 per cent of their waking hours that they are not in the one point of hope for them and their parents - the local schools which he so fleetingly and scathingly dismisses.

Tooley wrote this book in a hurry (about two months), and occasionally it shows. He is not well-informed, for example, about school improvement and effectiveness research. And, although the section on private sector involvement is persuasive, his advocacy of education-only "for-profit" companies is so strong one almost thinks he must be an adviser to, or stakeholder in, one of them. More seriously, he never addresses the moral question of how to justify allowing the private sector to make a profit out of disadvantaged kids.

The book is a tease: great fun to read but not something to take too seriously if you are trying to crack the cycle of deprivation, or the issues of where our school system is failing.

Indeed, I would add another F to Tooley's list: fantasy. My fantasy football education team would have Ivan Illich onthe left wing and James Tooley on the right, with Sheila Lawlor as centre forward. Don't hold your breath for the championship.

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