Off the Shelf

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Somebody should write a thesis about smells in schools. When they do I can tell them about the room in a Birmingham secondary school which smelled permanently of gas. By the time I went there on teaching practice in the late Fifties, the search for a cause had long ago been abandoned, and the room was actually called "The Gas Room" on the school timetable, and referred to as such in assembly announcements. ("3B will go to the Gas Room after break.")

Not all schools have institutionalised smells, of course, but few are pong-free for long. The Log Book of Worfield village school in Shropshire, for example, records a good one in 1978: "27th November: Odour in Classrooms 1 and 2.

28th November: Odour Worse.

29th November: Children and Staff evacuate rooms 1 and 2" The excerpt comes from A History Little Known by John Turnock (Pounds 20.50 from Project 2000, Worfield School, Bridgnorth, Shropshire WV15 5LF). This very well produced book is an excellent example of the lovingly produced school histories which are sent to me from time to time. This one is particularly good at setting events against the more general social and historical background, and ought therefore to command a relatively wide readership. Schools thinking of producing their own histories as the millennium draws to a close could learn much from this one. (It was sewage, incidentally, at Worfield, and major building work was necessary.) John Turnock finds room, as you would expect, to comment on the Education Act of 1870 which for the first time brought the state into the business of elementary education. It is easy to leap to false conclusions about the 1870 Act and Mr Turnock himself nails one common misapprehension when he points out that "It was not the open-sesame to universal free education. " The Act has to be seen against the social and economic background of its time, and against the aims and beliefs of Gladstone's Liberals.

The architect of the 1870 Act was W E Forster, vice-president of the Council in Gladstone's first ministry. Given that the Act was a landmark in the history of education, it is surprising that there has been no significant biography of Forster since the official one published after his death. Now, with State Educator (Pounds 10.95 including postage, Community Education Development Centre, Lyng Hall, Blackberry Lane, Coventry CV2 3JS) Eric Midwinter, has filled the gap.

Midwinter's thesis, predictably enough, is that the 1870 Act was to do with social control; that measured in this way it did not work, and that nevertheless we still try to use schooling in the same doomed-to-fail way.

Just to underline Midwinter's point comes Exclusion from School edited by Eric Blyth and Judith Milner (Routledge Pounds 13.99) where we read of a headteacher who in a BBC interview "Noted that pupils identified as a drain on school resources were perceived as 'passengers...dragging back' the school and likely to be excluded." This collection of papers looks at the reasons for exclusion, and at the impact on schools, children and families. It is a significant contribution in an area where as yet relatively little has been written.

Equally telling coming after my reading of Midwinter on Forster was After the School Bell Rings by Carl A Grant and Christine E Sleeter (Falmer Press Pounds 39 hardback Pounds 14.95 paperback). When it first came out in 1986 this book was a groundbreaking study of how junior high school pupils really act and think. Now, in this second edition, we are reminded just how little things have changed.

Most of the teachers at Five Bridges (the school being studied) "viewed teaching as the process of transmitting a body of knowledge and skills to the young, and learning as a process of memorizing that knowledge and being able to perform those skills."

Ten years on, here in the UK, are things any better? Surely not. Rather have we reached a position where "transmitting a body of knowledge and skills to the young" is increasingly seen as a perfectly acceptable definition of the act of teaching. Any interpretation that takes into account the desires and preferences of "the young", on the other hand, is now assumed to be dangerous nonsense.

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