One of the chief virtues of Klondyke Kate, the winner of The TES secondary schoolbook award for English, is that many teachers, on first seeing it, balk at it. Published by the English and Media Centre, the collection of non-fiction texts for 14 to 18-year-olds contains pungent, vigorous and provoking writing from, among others, John Pilger, Seamus Heaney, Maya Angelou, Samuel Johnson and Germaine Greer.
"When we introduce it on courses here, teachers at first say they could never do a book like this with their students," says Barbara Bleiman, co-editor of Klondyke Kate. "Then we have a discussion, and show them pieces of work children have done on it, and they begin to see the possibilities."
The book epitomises the aim of the English and Media Centre in all its work: to challenge and excite pupils in a way that is manageable and effective for their teachers, raising expectations all round. Like most of the Centre's publications for classroom use, Klondyke Kate includes detailed suggestions for pupils' own discussion and writing ideas which are rooted in classroom practice, and trialled with teachers.
"I believe the strength of what we do is that it is based on collective and collaborative working with teachers, " says Michael Simons, director of the Centre, and like all its staff, a former teacher. "Through the courses we run, we can integrate training and support with the publications themselves. We can ask, 'could a pupil do this?', rather than simply, 'is this just a good idea to fill a page in a textbook?' "
The Centre is, he says, proud to have produced two out of the four titles on The TES shortlist - and justifiably so, since publishing books was not part of the Centre's original remit.
It was founded in 1975 by the Inner London Education Authority, as the ILEA English Centre, based in Victoria, one of a series of support centres for each area of the curriculum. Advising English teachers in secondary schools was its main role, but the publications - initially crude affairs, duplicated and stapled together - soon developed, "because they were an obvious way of disseminating the kinds of things that were going on here," says Michael Simons.
Sabrina Broadbent, who now runs the Centre's English courses with Barbara Bleiman, first came on a course at the Centre when she began teaching 15 years ago, and helped to compile a pack on Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and other authors from the Caribbean.
"The great thing for me was that I was teaching Wide Sargasso Sea at the time, and it was very supportive. In between working with Barbara on the pack, I could take the ideas back into the classroom," she says. "All the courses I remember here were very helpful in identifying strategies to familiarise children with texts, and showing them how to annotate, as well as bringing the idea of literary theory into the classroom - something I would have lacked the confidence to do on my own."
Never much liked by the high Tories of Westminste r, when ILEA was disbanded in 1990, the English Centre was the only curriculum centre to gain independent, charitable status. With grants from the London boroughs, the English Centre was allowed by Westminster, in return for some advisory work, to retain its accommodation for a further two years. In 1992, the Centre moved to its present address in Camden, the airy top storey of a Victorian school (formerly Camden Community School), where green wicker furniture and a mass of shiny pot plants do their best to dispel the classroom connotations.
Now completely self-financing, the English and Media Centre has a national (not to say, international) clientele. It has about 60 titles in print (including fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry, as well as books on teaching), and runs courses, at #163;75 per day, for newly-qualified and more experienced teachers, on different aspects of English and media teaching.
It produces a twice-yearly magazine, sent free to members of the National Association for the Teaching of English, which also distributes the Centre's titles. More recently, it has expanded into video production and is putting the finishing touches to its first CD-Rom,
Picture Power, which enables pupils to build and manipulate their own film sequence. Media work, both in terms of courses and publications, is increasingly sought after, and The Advertising Pack, winner of the 1994 British Film Institute Paddy Whannel Award, has already been snapped up by at least half the nation's secondary schools.
"The main difference in the way we operate now is that we do not have that wide pool of ILEA advisers to draw on - so we have become a little more insular," says Michael Simons.
"But we have also become more important to teachers - from a wide range of schools - because they get less support from advisers," adds Sabrina Broadbent. "In our choice of texts, and ideas for classroom activities, we are giving them models that they can be confident will work. Our publication s are saving them time, and they are reflecting our views of what constitutes effective teaching for children of all abilities."
The English and Media Centre, 136 Chalton Street, London NW1 1RX.