Off The Shelf

27th October 1995 at 00:00
People who are not teachers - and a lot of people who are - often have a touching faith in the power of school to change behaviour by simple explanation.

Hence all the firework talks and the admonitory posters about road safety,to say nothing of the annual letter which Birmingham heads used to have to read to their children advising them not to drink canal water. A discussion of the mismatch of perceptions between the teacher who advises and the pupils who listen is one of the most interesting chapters in Death and Loss by Oliver Leaman (Cassell hardback #163;35, paperback #163;12.99). There is, for example, the teacher who wants her pupils not to take the risk of smoking, and yet is seen by those same pupils to be a rock climber who also cycles to school in heavy traffic. One boy tells her "We don't know anyone who is ill through smoking, or who has died. We do have mates who have been knocked down by cars."

Clearly, as the author explains, pupils who are ready to accept everything the teacher says about the causes of the Franco-Prussian war may not be nearly so ready to accept her views about playing on the railway or smoking. "A teacher's expertise lies in his ability to manipulate and explain facts and theories, not in his power to persuade pupils to adopt or avoid particular lifestyles. " And, the author adds: "The current government is keen that teachers should take on this more admonitory role, but there is little evidence that they would be much good at it."

This is an excellent book, which Leaman wrote after being in a Bootle school at the time of the Hillsborough disaster. It is based on case studies and classroom research, and provides a practical and very readable approach to a subject which most teachers find difficult.

Just as teachers want to advise pupils about smoking, so they often feel strongly about unhealthy eating. In this regard, the Health Education Authority's briefing paper Diet and Health in School Age Children (from Health Education Authority Customer Services, Marston Book Services, PO Box 87, Osney Mead Industrial Estate, Osney Mead, Oxford OX2 0DT) provides all the backround information you need - that children are eating more fat than is good for them and that older girls are not eating enough calcium or iron. It does not, however, assume that all you need to do is tell children to eat their greens. "Teachers are aware that the context in which teaching takes place is very important."

What children like best about school, though, is not being told about Pythagoras, or to keep off the railway, but just being with their friends. Sue Roffey, Tony Tarrant and Karen Majors realise this very well, and in Young Friends (Cassell #163;12.99), they explore the nature of friendship between children. It is illustrated with children's drawings, some genuinely funny, and there are interesting case studies.

The chapter on "Crisis and Conflict in Friendship" will ring many bells with teachers who have dealt with "falling out", and there will be a loud amen to the idea that "sometimes, intervention (by adults) may not be helpful."

Seen alongside childhood friendship, relations between the various teacher unions can seem a tawdry business. In 1959, for example, the membership secretary of NUT estimated that the NAS and the NUT had already by then spent #163;1,250,000 on fighting each other. Mike Ironside and Roger Seifert's Industrial Relations in Schools (Routledge #163;16.99), from which I gleaned this fact, provides a fascinating insight into an important, not well documented and not always very reputable area of the history of education.

Finally, another history that sheds light on the early years of an influential institution is The Origins of the American High School by William J Reese (Yale University Press #163;23.50). This is a fascinating account of what it was actually like to be at school in America during the last century, taught by such men as "Principal Horace Webster ... who gave pupils demerits for smiles and grins ... At every opportunity scholars heckled Webster who was assailed by student doggerel and catcalls and amateur ventriloquism."

And even then, of course, there was the same belief that school could make people behave differently. A science textbook of 1873 pointed out that alcohol impairs the ability to reason: "The revel of the drunkard ends in utter insensibility."

This is not the sort of thing you find in GCSE texts now, of course, although I have known science teachers who from time to time would assiduously carry out the relevant experiment on themselves.

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