Stand up and be counted: school is ours

13th November 1998 at 00:00
WHOSE SCHOOL IS IT ANYWAY? By Kathryn A Riley. Falmer Press Pounds 42 (hb) Pounds 14.95 (pb)

The tantalisingly simple question of whose school is it? could elicit different answers from people at different times. The question not only has a historical perspective, as Kathryn Riley well illustrates, but can also lead to a number of other worthwhile supplementaries concerning the curriculum of a school, such as whose literacy strategy is it?, and assessment and accountability, such as whose GCSE results are they?

In journeying towards her answer, Riley identifies contributing factors, influential personalities and defining moments. Just as Plowden (1967) brought "parents into the equation", so the Black Papers (Sixties, Seventies) illustrated the growing "disillusion about education". And then came the William Tyndale debacle (1975) and "who rules our schools?" became a big talking point, while the details of the dispute and divisions and the roles of the leading personalities (Ellis, Haddow, Walker et al) provided the media with first-rate copy.

The two chapters on William Tyndale School and the Auld Inquiry make for fascinating reading and it is difficult to imagine who came out of it with any credit: the head, the teachers, the school managers, the local authority, or the media. And somewhere, caught up in it all, was the education of the pupils!

Such was the backdrop to Callaghan's Ruskin Speech (1976) and the start of the end of the old order. Questions about investment in education, standards, curriculum control, pedagogy, use of resources, teachers' autonomy, school governance and accountability and, perhaps most of all, the role of government in education were asked. The answers that were to emerge over the next 20 years were not to everyone's liking, particularly that of the teaching profession, its unions and associations and local authorities.

When you consider teachers' pay and conditions, national curriculum and assessment, the market ideology, open enrolment, local management of schools, league tables, OFSTED inspections of schools and local education authorities and so on, then the answer provided by most people in education to the question of who is in control? would have been "the Government", and more particularly Kenneth Baker or Margaret Thatcher.

In the second part of the book Riley addresses likely answers to her question. In doing so she discusses the contributions of local authorities, governors, headteachers, teachers, parents and pupils.

When Riley finally comes to answer her question with the phrase "It's ours", I was a little disappointed. I would have liked more explanation and discussion, particularly of the book's very last sentence: "We need to give those closest to the school - those with most at stake - the biggest say." If, by that, Riley meant most of the aforegoing, except government, then we are still left wondering what the exact nexus of relationships would look like. For, as those involved in the William Tyndale affair discovered, the "devil is in the detail".

That apart, Whose School Is It Anyway? is an excellent read - lively, informative, up-to-date and thought-provoking. Riley has given us a timely contribution to a serious and continuing debate.

The writer is assistant director, education and training, for Telford and Wrekin

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