Off the shelf

30th May 1997 at 01:00
To have done Latin at school is a bit like having done National Service. Yes, there was agony, but all the same you strain for recollection, and you would like to be able to relive parts of it. All I remember are the esoteric chants - not just the ubiquitous "amo, amas amat" but "sum, esse, fui, missing" and "bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello, bella, bella, bella, bellorum, bellis, bellis".

Which is why Learn Latin by Peter Jones (Pounds 7.95, Duckworth) is so sensible and so welcome. The book, which first appeared as a series of Daily Telegraph articles, sets out to teach the reader just enough Latin to cope with Carmina Burana and the Bayeux Tapestry. It does so with panache. Peter Jones, a co-founder of "Friends of the Classics", which promotes the classics in schools, would probably suggest that any programme of school improvement would include an injection of the classics.In fact, the focus tends to be on more mundane things to do with management, targeting, classroom organisation and the "delivery" of various nostrums. (Now there's a Latin word for you.) In 500 Tips for School Improvement (Kogan Page, Pounds 15.99), Helen Horne and Sally Brown boil down large chunks of current thinking about school improvement into bite-sized, numbered chunks. Each has a key sentence - "Challenge pupils appropriately", "Be genuine", "Get participants to act as each other's progress chasers" - followed by a couple of dozen words of explanation. Each chapter has six to eight sets of "tips", adding up to 500 in all. It is a good idea, and is well done. I am not sure it would work as the main text for an improvement programme, but it could certainly act as a concise aide-memoire, or focus for discussion.

One of the greatest school improvers of all was the Quaker Joseph Lancaster, whose work in improving the teaching of poor children in charity schools in the early 19th century is often glossed over by historians. His system by which child "monitors" were taught, and then used to teach others, has been much misunderstood. It seems to us inefficient and rigid, but Lancaster was no fool, and where his system was properly run it greatly improved schooling. Many of his ideas were well ahead of their time. Joyce Taylor's Joseph Lancaster, the Poor Child's Friend (Campanile Press, Pounds 5) will do much to revive the modern educator's understanding of how far some roots of the profession extend.

Melanie Phillips is also a would-be school improver. She chooses to do it by waging a single-handed journalistic war on an "education establishment" which has, she believes, let down generations of children by failing to teach them the skills and knowledge necessary for true liberation. She returns to this message time and again in The Observer, and produced, in 1996, her book, All Must Have Prizes, which set out her case in greater detail.

Unsurprisingly, many teachers and teacher educators - some of whom had devoted the whole of their working lives to driving up standards in schools - took personal umbrage at being told they were up to no good, and reacted angrily. In the first chapter of the newly published paperback edition of her book (Little, Brown Pounds 9.99), Melanie Phillips sees this as further evidence of the incorrigible nature of those who constitute the problem, and she writes of "the phenomenon of denial". This,presumably, is not the same as a fervent and unyielding belief in the rightness of your argument.

Lack of money, of course, is one of the reasons for poor school performance. That it is not the only one is obvious - which, unfortunately, provides government with a convenient excuse for evading its responsibilities. Some schools have managed partly to plug the funding gap by attracting sponsorship - sometimes to such good effect that other heads have looked on open-mouthed.

What some heads need, perhaps, is How to Make Lots of Money for Your School, by Frank Kelling (The Collie Press, Manley Lane, Manley, Cheshire WA6 0PB Pounds 25). Frank Melling runs the Cheshire Schools Magazine Project. In order to keep this going he has to earn Pounds 55,000 a year in sponsorship, and much of his expertise is distilled in the book. Readers will be encouraged by his adherence to a principled approach; he tells of turning down a sponsor "because in my view she wanted to exploit the children for commercial ends". He also acknowledges that sponsorship is not essential for a school to be "successful, happy and well respected".

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