Theory and practice in the balance

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Philosophy and Educational Policy: a critical introduction

By Christopher Winch and John Gingell

RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99

Values and Leadership

By Anne Gold

University of London Institute of Education pound;8.99. Issues in Practice Series. To order, tel: 020 7612 6050; email:;

Philosophy and Educational Policy is described by its publishers as a comprehensive introduction to the philosophy of education. Its authors - teachers respectively in educational policy and philosophy - make a slightly different claim. Their purpose, they say, is "to introduce central questions in educational policy through engagement with their philosophical assumptions".

Policy, of course, is made by politicians: in practice, the authors examine it in the light of its philosophical implications rather than its philosophical groundings. They tend, too, to concentrate on what policy is rather than what it might be. So when (for example) they examine the relationship of "culture" and the national curriculum, they take the structure of the curriculum - all those subjects and key stages - rather for granted. But, of course, it is rather taken for granted. No wonder, then, as they easily show, that we still have no "clear, modest and realistic account of the values it embraces and the outcomes it aims for".

The book starts by looking at those values and the aims of education. Early chapters deal with areas where these may be in conflict with each other or may raise questions about current policy: the nature and uses of knowledge, the nature of teaching and of learning, and the pitfalls that lie in wait for those inclined to proclaim, without empirical evidence, that they know what works.

The central section discusses the value judgments that underpin our use of "assessment" and "standards" as benchmarks of success, and examines our understanding of moral, personal and civic education: three "relatively neglected areas", they claim. Finally, they look at areas where widely held values clash with current policy. They contrast education for autonomy, what they call a liberal education, with education for economic growth, not, as they suggest, a synonym for prevocational and vocational courses, and ask with some scepticism if educational markets really can offer equality of access. Examining multiculturalism and the issue of faith schools, they test the degree to which our education system is responding to the challenges of a diverse society.

The book is short, with helpful chapter synopses and clearly flagged debating points. Undergraduate students of education or philosophy will find it helpful and challenging. If we don't articulate our values as a liberal democracy, the authors say, in and through our schools and colleges, we may lose our values and our democracy. Discuss.

Winch and Gingell look at values on a societal level, in the context of national policies. In Values and Leadership, Anne Gold looks at them at the level of the individual school and school leader, small cogs in what is now a vast and centrally controlled machine.

She studied a small number of heads or principals, all of whom had been rated as "outstanding leaders" by Ofsted and their LEAs. Initially, she wanted to know about their leadership. Unsurprisingly, there were consistent themes. Their leadership was about managing and sometimes welcoming change, keeping colleagues in the picture, sharing decision-making, developing leadership capacity.

Was it characterised, then, by common values? In terms of what they wanted for young people in their schools, the answer was clearly yes; and in every case, such hopes and expectations reached over and beyond the national standards agenda. But other values - what they wanted in their staff or from their community - varied and sometimes clashed. How did such values play out in reality? How did leaders reconcile the inevitable tensions, between autonomy, for instance, and cohesion? There is a sort of composite case history here by way of illustration: a dilemma for the head who (unfashionably) believes passionately in mixed-ability learning but whose highly successful English department doesn't. No prizes for guessing the answer.

But is there a principle, in the philosophic sense of the word, that might guide the head in her pragmatic response? Leaving for the moment her research, Gold suggests there is: the "capabilities approach" US philosopher Martha Nussbaum (not mentioned in Winch and Gingell) outlined in 2000 in Women and Human Development, a basic list of absolutes against which, perhaps, all policy should be tested.

No such list, of course, will eliminate values-conflict: it is in the nature of values that they demand value judgments. But the best schools and school leaders, if not always national politicians, work towards shared values, and Gold's valuable and convincing booklet finishes with an outline of how they do it, with particular reference to the crucial issues of appointment, induction, mentoring and (in its fullest sense) staff development. Concise, practical and optimistic, her account is a must for potential school leaders.

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