Rescue of the post-16 losers

13th February 2004 at 00:00

By Nicholas Foskett and Jane Helmsley-Brown

Published by RoutledgeFalmer

ISBN 0-415-23239-2 pound;17.99

Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner

By Clive Chappell et al

Published by Routledge Falmer

ISBN 0-415-26348-4 pound;22.50

Teaching at Post-16

Edited by Lin Le Versha and Gill Nicholls

Published by Kogan Page

ISBN 0-7494-3348-5 pound;17.99

If, as Henry Adams said, practical politics consists in ignoring facts, then some of the architects of education policy during the past 20 years may want to avoid reading Choosing Futures. Having so enthusiastically embraced choice and consumerism in the education market, they might not welcome such a well-researched and intelligent study of how imperfectly those notions can operate in practice.

The authors, Nicholas Foskett and Jane Helmsley-Brown, have become experts on the important junctions of school, college or career choice and have drawn on their own and others' research to challenge popular assumptions about how the choices are made, who makes them, and what the consequences are for the system which champions them.

The picture they paint is one of decisions which are at best "sub-rational", often taken under the influence of parents or teachers who are ignorant about the range of options, and more likely to be motivated by class-based self-perceptions than a balanced assessment of what is on offer. Decisions can even be the result of simple inertia. For many, failure is often what ultimately dictates choice and, at its most acute, the penalties can be severe.

On the institutional side and especially at 16-plus, schools and colleges slug it out in the chase for students and funding while rivals' promotional literature is censored or filtered by far from impartial teachers or course tutors. Here, too, in a system that creates winners and losers, the research suggests that the latter too often slip into a cycle of decline.

The authors concede more than once that the old-style command systems could not survive in the modern world but conclude the book by reminding us that choice can be "a lose-lose end-game for (losers) depending on circumstance and opportunity".

One of the more challenging aspects of the book is the way bad situations can persist over years in spite of good intentions and lip-service to remedy them.

There is even evidence here that new structures have made some things worse, an example being the way in which funding systems promote rather than discourage partiality of advice at 16-plus. And when the authors can write that "the world of vocational education and training is terra incognita to most teachers", one wonders whether the Technical and Vocational Initiative of the 1980s can have had any permanent impact.

In its final chapter, the book touches on the need to understand the complex psychology involved if adult learners are to be encouraged and sustained. This theme is repeated at greater length in Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner, a treatise on the importance of identity and "self" of the lifelong learner in several contexts.

After setting out their theoretical arguments, which draw on the work of thinkers from classical times to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida via Rene Descartes and others, the authors use a series of case studies to investigate how the identities of learners interact with the focus of their study. These include narratives from such self-help manuals as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, work-based learning diaries and games as a tool in HIVAids education.

The early chapters of the book are likely to be hard going for someone who is simply looking for practical help as a teacher or learning facilitator of adult students. The prose staggers along under the weight of too many abstract nouns, many of them from the technical vocabulary of post-graduate sociology.

The authors admit in their final chapter that their main readership will be among pedagogical theorists in higher education. However, they submit themselves to an exercise in "reflexivity" during the course of which they consider the implications of what kind of relationship they have created with their readers. They explain reflexivity as a process in which "texts might interrupt themselves and foreground their own constructedness".

A layperson could be forgiven for thinking that when the explanation is harder to understand than the original there is a problem which is not the reader's fault. At the other end of the scale - and welcome back to intelligibility - is the extremely useful and attractively arranged Teaching at Post-16.

The book is an ideal companion for teaching probationers or PGCE students aiming for a career in an FE or sixth-form college. If you come into this category, don't be surprised if your boss borrows the book sometimes.

The post-16 sector has changed dramatically even over the past three years so the early chapters on the Qualifications Framework, Assessment, the Key-Skills Curriculum and Changes Post-16 provide an extremely useful briefing on the current scene.

But it is the detailed chapters on aspects of the job which will probably prove most popular. An early theoretical chapter on Learning Styles is supported by others which give detailed help on topics such as student support, managing coursework and classroom skills.

Lin Le Versha's chapter on Managing Behaviour in the Classroom has the authoritative ring of an experienced practitioner and acknowledges the fact that increased participation post-16 has made for a more diverse and less compliant college population.

The text is interspersed with examples of staff documentation on planning or record-keeping, students' work, teaching checklists and other highlighted memory tags so that it looks attractive and material is easy to re-visit.

Although the occasional playlet, in which exchanges between students and teachers are accompanied by the equivalent of thought bubbles, have a slightly artificial feel to them, they do at least alert the young teacher to the presence of sub-texts in classroom communication.

Overall, the book restores one's optimism about post-16 provision. Perhaps (with a backward look at Choosing Futures), after the bruises of pre-16 choice, the post-16 casualty team are saving the situation.

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