Rethinking the deficit model of childhood

6th December 2002 at 00:00
SCHOOLING THE CHILD: The making of students in classrooms. By Helena Austin, Bronwyn Dwyer and Peter Freebody. RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99.

EQUALITY AND POWER: Redistribution, recognition and representation. By Kathleen Lynch and Annie Lodge. RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99.

We spend more and more time categorising children: ticking off this competence, certifying that level, anticipating the next "key stage". No wonder, then, that Schooling the Child makes for challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading.

Essentially, the book deals with the sociology of childhood, but it is leavened with sharp and telling observation of teacher-pupil interactions. Its thesis is that, as teachers and adults, we share conventional and unthinking assumptions about what it is to be a child, and then set up complex systems (schools and classrooms) to shape children accordingly.

The authors argue that our concept of childhood is a developmental one: the child is a creature on the road to adulthood, and our task is to prod it further. That is why we value "mature work" so much more highly than "originality". So, they argue, our model of childhood is a deficit model. The paradox is that though we understand how damaging that model is with respect to, say, gender, class and ethnicity, it remains implicit in our treatment of childhood itself. The argument isn't always easy to follow - there is a lot of academic jargon - but the chapters that record and analyse actual teaching are provocative and, on the whole, convincing.

There is one minor snag: the research is Australian, and many of the lessons featured involve an Australian children's book - Colin Thiele's excellent Magpie Island (Puffin Books published it in the UK in 1981). It is not easy to find in bookshops, but is available on www.amazon.co.uk.

The authors of Equality and Power are based in Ireland. Like the Australian researchers, they are concerned with what happens in schools and classrooms. In their case, with the subtle ways in which schooling often acts to promote, not equality - the conventional objective - but its opposite. Given the thrust of current policy in Britain - the insistence that only through "education" can redistribution be effected - their account makes for stimulating reading. Inevitably, given the context, their research focuses more on class and gender than ethnicity, but their demonstrations of the ways in which inequalities based on social class are reproduced in schools (particularly at pre-school and "school choice" level), and of how "attainment tracking" leads to socially differentiated classroom experiences are difficult to refute.

The political overtones are clear. If equality is to be achieved, the authors say, the redistribution of educational "goods" has to be a priority. Currently, it isn't happening. Education has become "an institution that is designed and managed to ensure the transfer of privilege to the already privileged under the guise of certified competence" - but (and it's an important but) "there is always scope for resistance". If you find that encouraging, you must read on.

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