Off the shelf

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Very few student teachers have these days heard of A S Neill, who founded and ran Summerhill, perhaps the archetypal progressive school, where there was little in the way of rules, and no compulsion to attend lessons. This is a shame, because they are missing out on some important and radical ideas.

The real tragedy, though, is that this lack of knowledge reflects a 20-year decline in the discussion of alternative ways of educating children. So, although we now have a lively debate about school improvement, hardly anyone is prepared to suggest that perhaps we ought to try a different sort of school, or no school at all. A S Neill: Bringing Happiness to Some Few Children by former Summerhill teacher Bryn Purdy (Educational Heretics Press Pounds 7.95) helps to put this right, and to remind readers that perhaps, just possibly, there is something fundamentally illogical about trying to nurture free spirits in a restrictive environment.

Neill's mission was simple, but called for a special sort of courage and the kind of understanding of children that caused him to say in a staff meeting, "I'm rather worried about Duncan (a new boy). He's very polite and he doesn't seem to be getting any better."

Progressive schools in the Summerhill mould are sometimes referred to as "Un-schools". By this token, the Open University has a fair claim to be an "Un-University" - except, of course, that it would take little pleasure in being labelled as radical. Pioneering, groundbreaking, liberating, perhaps,but still firmly in the race for conventional academic excellence.

OU Men (Lutterworth Press Pounds 14.99) by Patricia Lunneborg, who also wrote OU Women, tells the stories of 15 men from widely different backgrounds, all of whom have studied with the OU. Between the interviews,the author provides short chapters of comment on the state of the world of work in Britain, all of which help to illuminate the pressures which motivated her subjects to take up their studies. Some of them were escaping from unethical, unhappy jobs; others were fulfilling a lifetime ambition. All the stories are fascinating. This is the book to read if you are considering an OU degree, or to give to someone who is thinking about it.

The parents who sent their children to Summerhill either shared Neill's vision and courage, or were desperate, having seen their children shown the door at every other available institution. (The resultant social imbalance, in fact, caused some enormous problems.) They certainly would not have found Summerhill in a publication such as The Sunday Times State Schools Book (Bloomsbury Publishing Pounds 14.99).

This lists 500 secondary schools across the UK. The English Welsh ones are ranked according to exam results; the Scottish ones are listed alphabetically, in the absence of Scottish league tables. Each entry is long enough to give excellent basic information, including the head's name,and to include the school's own statements on such issues as discipline - which, unsurprisingly, are strong on phrases such as "an emphasis on courtesy, care and respect for others".

Interestingly, the book gives each school's motto, where there is one. My favourite, just for the sound of it, is that of Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School, Rochester - Sub umbra alarum tuarum. (I'm not telling you. You'll have to work it out.) Of course, if all else fails, you can educate yourself - and there is plenty of evidence that this is not always a bad idea. There are certainly plenty of self-help books around. Improving Your Written English by Marion Field (How To Books Pounds 8.99) covers all the main areas of standard punctuation, grammar and spelling. I cannot think of anyone, no matter how literate, who does not feel the need occasionally to sneak a look at a book such as this, and Marion Field's is an excellent example of its kind. It would also make a very good reference book for a senior pupil with particular grammar or punctuation problems.

This is the column that mentions second (to say nothing of third, fourth and 19th) editions. So let me draw attention to Primary Science, Making it Work by Chris Ollerenshaw and Ron Ritchie. (David Fulton Pounds 14.99) The title of this book says it all - it should be required reading for primary science co-ordinators.

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