Secret garden needed pruning;Education Books;All levels

27th February 1998 at 00:00
WHOSE SCHOOL IS IT ANYWAY?. Kathryn Riley. Falmer Press. pound;42pound;14.95.

The Independent newspaper reported the 1997 White Paper under the headline, "Government hand in every school". For the Express, it was "School blitz as Blunkett goes back to basics".

Twenty years ago those promises would have been unthinkable. How did we get to where we are? And how might we yet get to where we need to be? In this enjoyable account, Professor Riley gives some convincing answers.

Her story starts at the William Tyndale Junior School in Islington, north London, which in 1975 and 1976 came to epitomise the right-wing black papers versus progressive educational debate. A new head had been appointed, determined to tackle the effects of social deprivation. Children would learn better, he said, if they could choose what to learn and when to learn it; the school would function better if all decisions were put to a vote.

A minority of staff, opposed to such changes, began to pamphleteer against them. "Chaos and anarchy in the classroom," they claimed. Parents, managers, the then Inner London Education Authority, Rhodes Boyson and the media all got involved. A public inquiry was ordered. Its report, in July 1976, was scathing. Collegiality, leadership, even care had failed. Not only had order collapsed, there had been no attempt to achieve it. When a school manager was asked what action had been taken to stop pupils bombarding the nursery school with milk bottles, the reply was that the dairy had been asked to deliver milk in packets. Everyone was to blame, the report concluded. Why, it asked, had no one acted?

For Kathryn Riley, who has re-interviewed the protagonists, it was this question that made the William Tyndale episode seminal for the future. It raised the questions about control, governance, accountability and teaching that were to fuel the great education debate and which, in important respects, remain unanswered.

During the public inquiry, Riley reminds us, a new prime minister had taken office. James Callaghan was instinctively traditional about education. "I was determined," he tells her, "that the Tories were not going to line us up with Tyndale and every idiotic teacher sympathetic to the Labour party."

Henceforward, the message was intervention. Teachers, and councillors, could not be trusted. It was the end of the secret garden; the end, too, of the post-war consensus on education.

Well, we know what happened. Thatcherism was to steer a course between market forces and parental choice and ever more detailed central regulation. The result was what Riley calls "a surveillance culture". If we read the signs right, that remains the intention of New Labour.

Yet the Government does have an opportunity to lay the foundation of a new consensus and Riley outlines the shape it might take. Whose schools are they, anyway? The local authorities'? The governors'? The heads'? The teachers'? The parents'? Or even the pupils'?

What is certain is that the White Paper does not have all the answers. If the schools of today are to meet the needs of tomorrow, Riley argues, we need to give the biggest say to those who are closest to the school.

Michael Duffy was formerly head of King Edward VI School, Morpeth, Northumberland

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