Off the shelf

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Those of us who went to school before anyone worried about safety have some splendid memories of lively and explosive science lessons. I was reminded of them by Christopher Greenfield's By Our Deeds (Island Publications Pounds 3), a collection of historical anecdotes about Sidcot School by its recently retired headmaster.

Among his stories is that of the Cerebos salt tin which is made to explode and fly through the air, fuelled by a mixture of gas and air: "With a little careful working, the assistants could tilt it slightly so that the Cerebos salt tin would soar up and descend on to a lower school boy below. What a laugh they had."

Of such stories are good school histories made. Thus, in the 1850s, at Radley School, W B Woodgate ran up and down the covered way between Chapel and School one hundred times, a distance of four-and-a-half miles, in less than an hour, for a bet. Oh, and, as you do if you are a public school boy,he ate two pots of jam on the way.

Any well written public school history is filled with such delights. The story of Woodgate's run is in Christopher Hibbert's No Ordinary Place: Radley College and the Public School System 1847-1997 (John Murray Pounds 26). In another story, Hibbert reveals that during the last war, when women were employed in the dining room for the first time, "One famously voluptuous woman servant was known as 'the Resister', though why she had earned the sobriquet and what or whom she was supposed to have resisted never became clear." Good stories apart, Hibbert, who is a biographer of Nelson and others, paints a picture of a fascinating institution, considerably more enlightened in both curriculum and disciplinary tone than some other public schools.

It is axiomatic in our society that a school such as Radley is always assumed superior to the most successful of comprehensives. P W Turner, in Second Class Ticket (Sheffield Hallam University Press Pounds 9), makes this point well, reminding us that "they (state schools) were seldom, if ever, seriously meant to be anything more than a second-class service for those that could not, or would not, afford to buy their children a 'proper' private education". This, he argues is where the roots of state education lie, this is their legacy, and this is why, far from disastrously failing in their mission, "State schools do, broadly speaking,all that can be reasonably expected of them, given the basis on which they were established."

Phil Turner was a teacher, a lecturer and a school inspector. In 1988 he retired and spent time, over five years, teaching in state schools to research this book. He found that one of the problems was not that teaching styles had changed, but that they had stayed the same. "The weight of the evidence suggests that we still teach them very much as we did 50 years ago." As a result, the school system, "is failing miserably to cope with the demands of the computer age".

The tragedy is that no one listens to people such as Phil Turner any more.For one thing, he believes that good state education will only come from the spending of money on resources and teacher training.

Phil Turner, and those who agree with him will be heartened, I suspect, by John Goodlad's In Praise of Education (Teachers College Press Pounds 31.50 hardback Pounds 15.50 paperback). Goodlad, of the University of Washington, is a major educational thinker, and this erudite critique, based on the American experience, echoes many of our own concerns.

"The concluding decade of the 20th century," he writes, "was marked by a rather rasping debate over public (that is, state) schooling . . . Much of it began with the assumption that our system of public schooling had failed us, not that the people might have failed it." The trouble is that the people who say these things are written off as part of the problem - as Goodlad puts it, "their reports were accused of being self-serving and, therefore, of being highly selective in their choice of data." Phil Turner should read this book. Goodlad should read Turner's, and the rest of us should read them both.

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