Interference leads to ignorance

16th February 1996 at 00:00
THE STATE AND THE SCHOOL. Edited by John D Turner. Falmer Pounds 13.95

This book contains seven refreshingly different chapters of reflection and analysis on the relationship between the state and the school.

The opening chapter is a rousing and uninhibited defence of the primacy of liberal education - "the initiation of a learner by a teacher into the conversation which takes place between the generations of mankind". Richard Pring bemoans the unprecedented arbitrariness of the exercise of power by the British government and regrets the failure of the custodians of liberal education to rebel.

While Pring writes with warmth and conviction, later contributors focus on the nature of the relationship between the state and the school, and point the way to possible responses. Interesting accounts of the role of the state in Africa and Chile illustrate the significance of the wider economic and political setting. In Africa, the authoritarian rule of governments and the continuing violation of human rights leads inexorably to the denial of academic freedom. Poverty and lack of development further conspire to weaken democratic participation.

In a chapter on educational aid and development, Fiona Leach points out the limitations of state level assistance to educational development in the poorest countries where there is inherent incompatibility between donors and receiving governments.

Two other writers deal freshly with key themes in the relationship between state and school. Geoffrey Partington asserts that educational values are inherently contestable and therefore the state involvement in schooling should be reduced as much as possible in favour of the devolution of decision making to parents and individual institutions.

A particularly stimulating contribution is a devastating analysis of the school effectiveness movement by Lynn Davies. Pointing out that recognising an effective school is not the same as creating one and that much school improvement policy is a myth, she goes on to suggest that the last thing a fragile state wants is too many articulate, well-qualified students.

Essential to her argument is the recognition that mass schooling and non-mass achievement are necessary to the perpetuation of inequality and political power. The statistical nonsense and narrowness of league tables is exposed, along with the need for new goals for schooling that incorporate such qualities as skills, self-esteem, empowerment and social responsibility.

The contributors to this book do not favour the assumption of greater state powers over the school. Beyond that slender basis of agreement, their views about the role of the other stake holders are widely divergent.What they do demonstrate is that in the UK the simplifications which characterise political sound-bites ignore the real needs of a deeply divided and hugely overcentralised education system.

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