Off The Shelf
If you overuse a word, it eventually starts to detach itself from the main body of the language, and begins to blunder around like a lump of ectoplasm at a seance, first rapping on the table for attention and then declaiming misleading messages.
Such is the the word "quality", which is now fated to wander forever in a doomed attempt to discover its own meaning. Take, for example, these three recent books. Quality Teaching, by Edgar Stones, Quality Improvement in Education, edited by Carl Parsons and The Quality Education Challenge by Carolyn J Downey, Larry E Frase and Jeffrey J Peters.
The first one uses the word "quality" quite straightforwardly in the sense of "good" or "excellent" - the temptation, indeed, is to believe that the author simply rejected these perfectly serviceable adjectives in favour of something more fashionable. What Professor Stones does here is focus closely and unremittingly on the point in time and space where the child learns, going on to examine all the techniques that the teacher can bring to bear upon it. It is a masterly piece of work - academically rigorous, readable, and related always to real classrooms, real teachers and real children. The other two "quality" books use the word in its more recent managerial context. Both, for example, have substantial sections on Total Quality Management guru W Edwards Deming.
Of the two, that by Downey, Frase and Peters is perhaps less useful for UK readers except as a general introduction to the concept of TQM and its possible application to education. To be fair, this is precisely its purpose as the first in a series of related volumes.
In Quality Improvement in Education, however, Dr Parsons looks at a number of institutions from lower primary to higher education and uses them to illustrate a range of quality assurance techniques including Deming's "Fourteen Points" , Management Charter Initiative, quality assurance certification (BS5750 and ISO 9000) and Investors in People. It is a comprehensive survey, founded in commonsense and good practice and quite prepared to raise a very British quizzical eyebrow - "Total quality management . . . comes, as many of these touching fashions do, from America via the East, bringing with it the quiet fervour of low-church evangelism and the mystique of yoga."
While I am about it, I suppose the theme of "quality" , provides an excuse to mention the 1995 edition of The Daily Telegraph Schools Guide, edited by John Clare (Heinemann Pounds 11.99). This provides brief entries,in the chatty style of a cosy guide to decent hotels, on 700 schools from the independent and state sectors. It is too easy to criticise a guide like this and to say that I know, professionally, some superb schools which are not in here. Parents, though, have to start somewhere. Let me just say, though, that while this book seems to consider it a good sign when a school with students up to 18 shows "No sign of make-up, jewellery or outrageous hairstyles", I personally think the opposite. Another, differently focused school chooser is produced by the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) Its current 1995 edition of Choosing Your Independent School costs Pounds 7.95 and has objective details on 1,350 schools.
A disturbing insight into another world, whose problems are different from those experienced by anxious school-choosing Telegraph readers, is provided by Fast Moving Currents in Youth Culture, from religious publisher Lion (Pounds 10 edited by Leslie F Francis, William Kay, Alan Kerbey and Olaf Fogwill). It might come as a surprise to some (though it should not) to know that among those who really have their ears to the ground of youth culture are the many selfless people who do voluntary youth work as part of their Christian commitment.
This book draws together and discusses data from interviews with 13,000 young people in England and Wales. The Christian dimension is there, but readers of other religions (or none) should not be put off, because the messages are universal and often deeply disturbing. (Like the story of the Belfast girl who thought of herself as a "sandbag" because her main role in life was to lie on the parcel shelf of a stolen car in order to put soldiers off their aim. ) No wonder that Michael Eastman writes, in the book's conclusion, "Christian youth ministry takes us beyond our comfort zones. It is not a soft option . . . Answers do not come cheap."