What would Rip van Winkle say?

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Our schools might not be changing fast enough for some people's liking, but there are signs of progress if you look hard enough, argues Tim Brighouse

Twenty-First Century Schools: knowledge, networks and new economics

By Gerard Macdonald and David Hursh

Sense Publishers, PO Box 21858, 3001 AW, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

www.sense publishers.com. pound;25 plus pound;3.50 pp

Radical Encouragement: creating cultures for learning

By Steve Williams and Rupert Wegerif

Imaginative Minds pound;13 plus pp pound;4 (UK). Order from York

Publishing Services, tel: 01904 431213 www.thinkingonline catalogue.co.uk

It's hard to dislike a book with an arresting start. Macdonald and Hursh begin Twenty-first Century Schools with their modern retelling of the story of Rip van Winkle. A young woman named Clara accompanies our freshly awoken and increasingly bewildered hero through a society replete with cars, planes, radios and mobile phones. When they pause outside a building, "Van Winkle peers in a window to see a teacher, shouting at her class. For the first time he relaxes and smiles. Clara registers the change of expression.

'Why are you smiling?' she asks. 'Do you know what that is?' 'Sure,' says van Winkle. 'I went to one of those. It's a school.'" This is closely followed by one of George W Bush's better sayings: "You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."

But the book doesn't quite live up to its opening promise. It has many good points, however, including a thorough analysis of the history of schooling and its dependent links with religion, and of the influence of economic development. Moreover, as the Rip van Winkle story suggests, it highlights the sometimes incompatible roles of the school as an agency for teaching, learning and child-minding. Macdonald and Hursh suggest that modern societies - particularly the US and the UK - have been ambivalent about whether they are really trying to educate all children, given the need to provide a steady flow of unskilled and semi-skilled workers for the mines, steelworks and factories that until recently provided our economic infrastructure.

The authors are a little harsh on politicians in general and our current crop in particular. I don't believe that all politicians are driven by personal ambition for the next post or what the economy requires of education. Estelle Morris clearly had her roots in the classroom, as did Gillian Shephard; like Shirley Williams, they were driven by a deep commitment to equity and equality. Even David Blunkett, for all his authoritarian tendencies, never forgot the needs of poorer children in comprehensive schools. And why does the book analyse the false start of the education action zones but ignore the widespread success of the Excellence in Cities programme? It is selectivity such as this and a tendency to mix analysis with unsubstantiated assertion and opinion that make one suspect the authors have axes to grind.

Yet, in the end, I sympathise with their contention that curricula and many of the education system's inherited rituals and processes are unsuited to our future needs. Indeed, they put a powerful case for creativity, innovation and enterprise, coupled with a review of the factors that are hindering change. It is a pity they didn't produce case studies of the many schools that are successful as a starting point for their last chapter - an all too brief eight pages - on the supposed subject of the book: 21st-century schools.

None of this criticism can be levelled at Steve Williams and Rupert Wegerif, whose Radical Encouragement is a heartening account of developments in a range of schools in the north-east through the Northumberland Raising Aspirations in Society (N-RAIS) project. Three chapters on "philosophy for children", "coaching" and "teaching thinking skills" will be useful to teachers and heads, particularly in primary schools. They are practical, and their claims of effectiveness are supported by a range of evidence including extracts from Ofsted reports and comments from pupils, parents and staff.

Indeed, the chapter "Teachers need radical encouragement too" is written by a teacher whose practice has been transformed. Martin Renton worked with the N-RAIS team at Amble middle school, Northumberland, until last year. He explains that he feels much more involved in enabling children to become learners as well as teaching basic skills.

The final chapter sets out the conditions that sustain radical encouragement in practice through N-RAIS. It's ironic that funds for this exciting initiative came not from the DfES but from the single regeneration budget after 22 headteachers worked together on a bid. When put alongside neighbouring Durham's Raising Expectations programme, N-RAIS causes one to reflect how groups of schools, given encouragement and some support, are building new schools for the 21st century, if only we would pause to look.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for the London Schools Challenge

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