Horror story

7th July 1995 at 01:00
THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP? THE SCHOOL LIBRARY AND THE GCSE by Helen Phtiaka. Library Information Research Report 93. Pounds 18. 0 7123 3277 4

The introduction of the GCSE has had almost no impact on teaching and learning styles in secondary schools nor on the use made of school libraries. Such is the depressing conclusion of this report. In stark contrast to Peggy Heeks and Margaret Kinnell's optimistic conclusions about the impact of the national curriculum on school library effectiveness School Libraries at Work (reviewed in The TES on May 19), Helen Phtiaka concludes that initiatives such as GCSE have little effect on teaching and learning styles where a school's ethos values examination performance and pupil discipline above independent learning and research skills. Despite the GCSE's implications for independent learning and library use, libraries in three of the four secondary schools examined in this 198991 study were marginalised, underfunded and under-utilised, whether professionally staffed or not.

From this evidence, it would seem that the high hopes of information professionals for a more central role for the school library, following the introduction of the GCSE, were misguided. Schools with a traditional ethos and didactic teaching styles had subverted the intentions of the new exam. "Any student can cope, can take a GCSE physics, without ever needing to go in the library" one teacher commented, highlighting the tension between encouraging independent learning and producing good results.

Independent research inevitably involves an element of risk. However valuable the learning experience may be for the pupil, the outcome may not be acceptable to the examiner. Consequently, in schools with an ethos of discipline and competition, it was significant that teachers had interpreted the introduction of the GCSE as an administrative change rather than an opportunity to examine their educational philosophy. In the one school in this study where independent learning was encouraged, the introduction of the GCSE had not significantly altered the prevailing teaching style.

It is questionable whether such a small sample of schools is truly representative. Phtiaka's conclusion that the school ethos is a stronger determining factor in school library use than external changes such as the GCSE, while depressing, is hardly new. Yet while subsequent emphases on traditional teaching methods, larger class sizes and league tables of examination results seem to militate against independent learning, good schools are seizing the opportunities offered by the new curricula and examinations, as Heeks and Kinnell's study shows. Phtiaka's horror story offers only a partial truth.

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