Off the shelf

28th February 1997 at 00:00
At college, we were firmly told that "one of the biggest challenges you will face is that of teaching children cleverer than you are".

Not since then have I come across any discussion of the education of able children which has faced up to the issue in those terms. And yet our classrooms contain many children who are not just cleverer and more imaginative than their teachers, but are also more emotionally mature, more socially aware and a heck of a lot funnier. My suspicion is that educators fail properly to confront this because it provides yet more evidence that conventional schooling may be a deeply flawed idea.

What we do instead, therefore, is work out how to teach bright pupils within the existing framework. We set up enrichment programmes; we worry about the pros and cons of acceleration, and we write and read such books as Deborah Eyre's Able Children in Ordinary Schools (David Fulton, Pounds 13.99).

My feelings about this book are ambivalent. On the one hand there is no doubt that Deborah Eyre, who is President of the National Association for Able Children in Education, and an international authority on the subject, has written an immensely knowledgeable and practical account which covers the issues, disposes of the myths, and gives excellent guidance to schools.On the other hand, the fact that the author believes so much guidance is needed causes me to wonder whether the school system can ever really do justice to the needs of its most able pupils.

"Given that many children," Deborah Eyre writes, "of all varieties, allude to the large percentage of their schooling which leaves them under-challenged and unfulfilled, it is hardly surprising that a percentage of these children choose to become disruptive."

What is certain, though, is that the sheep and goats approach of selective schooling for brighter children is not the way to do it - and yet comprehensive school headteachers and governors are still having to defend the principles which underpin their work.

One result, as Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty point out in their book on comprehensive schools, Thirty Years On (Penguin, Pounds 9.99), is that much needed debates about how comprehensive schooling should develop "have so often had to take second place behind arguments from those opposed to the comprehensive system in principle." Benn and Chitty's book, first published last year by David Fulton, is now available as a Penguin paperback at Pounds 9.99.

What certainly do work, though, for all children, are initiatives which forge constructive home-school links. John Bastiani, however, reminds us in Home-School Work in Multicultural Settings (David Fulton, Pounds 13.99) that not all such work attracts the attention it deserves. "That part of it which is being done among cultural and linguistic minorities, largely by Section 11 funded staff, is often unheralded, sometimes marginalised, both within staffrooms and within LEA services."

This book, edited by Mr Bastiani, with contributions from a large number of experienced workers in the field, goes a long way to put that right. It points out that "mainstream" home-school work could learn a great deal from studying Section 11 initiatives.

Another area which generally enjoys a high profile, and yet where insufficient attention is paid to the needs of cultural minorities is that of child protection. Valerie Jackson, in Racism and Child Protection (Cassell, Pounds 35 hardback, Pounds 12.99 paperback) tells us that childcare experts have insufficient knowledge of black cultural groups and,to compound the problem, "There are additional barriers which prevent a child from a non-white background disclosing abuse, particularly if the abuse is sexual."

Cultural misunderstanding is at the root of one of the good stories in Not Bad for a Foreigner, by Jean Evans (Pounds 15.99 plus Pounds 1.50 postage, Safari Books, Bel Royal House, Hilgrove Street, St Helier, Jersey, CI).

While she was teaching in Nigeria, a Christian missionary took it upon himself to take a class in a girls' school residential compound in the midst of a Muslim community. Her account makes plain that she still takes pleasure from recalling the size of the strip which she tore off him. "The man's mouth was opening and shutting like a dying fish. I decided to frighten him even more . . . "

Her best story, though, is of the telegram which a district officer sent to his superiors reporting the arrival of a plague of locusts: "Young pink adult locusts arrived from south east Stop Feeding on maize crops Stop Now copulating Stop." The reply which came back said, "Stop copulating and kill the locusts. "

Jean Evans, born in 1922, went to teach in Nigeria in 1950, one of many people whose selfless work in Africa is now either forgotten or thought of only along with the less admirable aspects of Imperialism. The genuine love which she and others like her had for her adopted country and its people, however, and which was returned by her pupils and friends, illustrates a side of our colonial history that deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

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