Theory that makes the practice perfect

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Education Studies: essential issues, Edited by Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton; Paul Chapman pound;18.99

The Activist Teaching Profession(Professional Learning series), By Judyth Sachs; Open University Press pound;17.99

Teacher Inquiry: Living the Research in Everyday Practice, Edited by Anthony Clarke and Gaalen Erickson; RoutledgeFalmer pound;29.99

Leadership in Education, Edited by Mark Brundrett, Neil Burton and Robert Smith; Sage Publications pound;18.99

Education studies used to be part of teacher training. But, since the 1990s, its scope has changed. Students who have no intention of becoming teachers now take education modules as part of their degree courses, especially in the new universities. They recognise that an understanding of education is applicable in many contexts. If the Government's priority really is "education, education, education", that's a valid view. Education studies is a growth industry.

But the thrust of recent policy has been to disparage education studies as an academic pursuit. Governments and their advisers have been hostile to what they characterise as airy-fairy theory: the claim, after all, has been "we know what works". But do we?

Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton's Education Studies identifies 10 of what the authors call "the hotspots" of current practice and measures them not just against the Government's criteria but also against what research, analysis and evaluation could be telling us. The topics include early years provision, citizenship, special needs, curriculum post-16 and higher education: hot topics, certainly, of direct relevance to many teachers (most, perhaps).

And all these areas, of course, are highly problematic. The authors argue that we have not thought through the aims of early years provision; that we haven't reconciled the tension between "inclusion" and the dubious precision with which we define and grade special needs; that we haven't grappled with the various dimensions of citizenship implied in faith-based or communitarian education.

Critics will say some of this is tendentious and will point (unfairly) to the chapters headed Education and Development, and Globalisation as evidence of bias. Others will say some of it is dated; important developments have taken place in higher education, for instance, since the book went to press. For all that, though, it is an informed and informative introduction. Teachers as well as student teachers will find it stimulating and valuable.

Topics it covers well include teacher management and teacher professionalism; again, ambiguous, contested areas.

In The Activist Teaching Profession, Judyth Sachs examines in depth the state of the profession - "Teaching is in crisis," the series editors Andy Hargreaves and Bob Goodson say, "staring tragedy in the face" - and considers particularly the implications of the international movement towards competence and performance standards. The perspective is Australian, but the relevance is unmistakable.

The central issue is whether standards are a means of developing professionalism or controlling it, "further diminishing the standing of teachers in the eyes of the community". That depends, the author says, on teachers themselves, and on the model of professionalism (open or restricted; progressive or conservative; collaborative or self-interested) they develop. She quotes interesting examples of cross-school, cross-phase collaboration; enough in themselves, she implies, to vanquish the prevailing, competitive market culture.

In the English context, that sounds too optimistic. She is nearer the mark, perhaps, when she argues that practitioner research is vital, not just for the teacher's professional development but for the development of the "transformative" profession she envisages.

Teacher Inquiry is a study of how that happens. The volume originates in the schools and universities of British Columbia, but again it is international in scope, bringing together accounts of successful projects across the world. The stress is on methodology - excellent for a teacher unsure of how to set about it - but there is a consistent underpinning message.

Practitioner research, it says, is shared research: "going public" provides "a substantial and rewarding feeling of group progress". It is also rich in opportunities for improving professional practice. There is ample evidence in the case studies to support those claims.

But the hot topic of the moment is surely educational leadership - for politicians a convenient scapegoat for any failures in the system as yet unresolved by their confident reforms. Leadership in Education offers an excellent analysis of the current debate: well informed on research and practice, positive but critical. It is particularly strong on what it calls "the railway-bookstall offerings of context-independent leadership".

Leadership can never be context-free, its authors argue: in times of turbulent change there can be no standard way to lead a school, nor indeed (as David Watson argues in an incisive final chapter) a university.

Above all, values may matter more than competences: an important message for the National College of School Leadership and the host of leader-trainers. And for all those teachers who are potential heads, too: there is a great deal of practical wisdom within these very accessible pages.

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