Play fair for maximum advantage

5th December 2003 at 00:00
SCHOOLS FOR OUR CITIES. By Richard Riddell. Trentham Books pound;17.99

ACTION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE IN EDUCATION. Morwenna Griffiths and others. Open University Press pound;18.99

SCHOOLS OF HOPE: A NEW AGENDA FOR SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT. By Terry Wrigley. Trentham Books pound;15.99

Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin's comment that he would rather beg than send his children to his local Lambeth secondary was politically unwise but educationally revealing. The quasi-market in education created by his party and enthusiastically embraced by New Labour has led, as was intended, to a hierarchy of schools. Those at the bottom, overwhelmingly working-class, are multiply disadvantaged. By definition they are schools in challenging circumstances; success, when they achieve it, is hard-won indeed.

It is these schools and the policy and social frameworks that create them that Richard Riddell examines in Schools for our Cities. Riddell knows what he is talking about. As chief education officer for Bristol, he presided over a highly stratified system that lost 20 per cent of its children to private education and suffered more than its share of inner-city deprivation. He knows that the weakest schools impose, even for outstanding teachers, huge personal demands. "There's a relentlessness about them, even when things are going well. It never stops," he writes. And always, in the background, is the persistent noise of what he calls "the crisis narrative".

He's good on how this happens and why, even as government moderates its destructively critical tone, it continues. He is best, though, on how schools can handle it: how, even at a time of crassly managerial prescription, they can adapt their curricular and classroom practices, build partnerships and learn from their children and their communities.

With some provisos (he is deeply worried about the proliferation of "academies" and the league-tabled, high-stakes testing culture), he remains essentially optimistic. Countering learning disadvantage, he says, is the most potent contribution schools can make towards achieving social justice.

For Morwennna Griffiths and her colleagues, it's social justice that is the driver. Social justice is a verb, she argues: if schools can recognise that and act upon it, learning disadvantage will lessen. She is less concerned with policy than with attitudes, above all, attitudes of teachers and schools to difference and diversity. Why, she asks, is it so difficult to deal with differences? Why do we think so often in stereotypes?

She weaves into her thesis, with almost antiphonal effect, the stories and experiences of 20 or more of her friends and colleagues - a university cleaner, a social worker, a poet, a potter, a lecturer and so on - telling us pointedly that "more than one of each" is male, female, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, young, middle-aged, old, middle-class, working-class.

The stories are striking, and strikingly well told, but the implication that all the categories are variants of excluded groups is puzzling. The practical examples of how schools can cope with prejudice, though, are very interesting. So is the discussion on self-esteem. If we don't teach young people to value themselves, Griffiths asks, how on earth can we ask them to value others?

But is it only up to schools to put such injustice right? And how far are schools themselves the victims? Both questions are important, argues Terry Wrigley in Schools of Hope. His subtitle is "a new agenda for school improvement", and he is concerned that the movement for school effectiveness and improvement has been captured, here and abroad, by right-wing politicians whose pursuit of "effectiveness" via targets, testing, accountability and compliance is weakening schools' capacity to respond.

His argument - germane to the debate about inner-city schools - is that we cannot expect schools to succeed by educational effort alone, without first challenging the structural inequalities in the economic and social order.

Perhaps, though, he says, we can create in and through schools the vision of that need, and of its possibility. This is the new hope of his title.

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