When differences become inequalities;Books

9th April 1999 at 01:00
EDUCATION POLICY AND CONTEMPORARY POLITICS. Edited by Jack Demaine. Macmillan pound;45

Is new Labour committed to comprehensive schooling? Probably not, if your vision of the comprehensive school is the same as that of Tony Crosland or Roy Hattersley. Is New Labour, then, going to keep our grammar schools?

Well, probably not that either. The Government's aim lies somewhere in the middle - to provide parents with a choice of various kinds of second-ary school, differentiated perhaps by specialist curricula, but not by the basic ability of the pupils.

The danger here is of "covert selection" - of knowledgeable and affluent parents being able to use the system more effectively than others, perhaps encouraged by heads and governors wanting to keep up their league-table results.

In their contribution to this book, Tony Edwards, Geoff Whitty and Sally Power explain just how powerful covert selection mechanisms have become. So, although they recognise the present Government's intention to make admissions criteria more transparent, they warn that "the successful fostering of specialisation and diversity within a broader commitment to comprehensive secondary education requires serious attention to be given to ways of prevent-ing differences becoming inequalities".

This is a crucial issue, dealt here lucidly and with authority in a paper that is typical of the whole book. Other authors maintain the standard. Phil Wild and Peter King, for example, dissect the way that information technology policy has developed (or failed to develop) over the past 20 years. There is plenty of evidence that, with a new millennium just round the corner, most teachers are still not comfortable enough, or well enough resourced, to be using information and communication technology naturally and easily in their classroom work. This failure, say the authors, has implications beyond education, "because it is precisely through widespread provision of IT in schools that we can prevent the accelerating disadvantages of a two-tier IT-skilled workforce and society".

Will the National Grid for Learning initiative and the forthcoming New Opportunities Fund for ICT training for teachers be a good enough substitute for what the authors insist is needed - a publicly-funded "genuinely effective national strategy for IT"? Time will tell.

Another chapter in the book, by David Reynolds, deals with the political emphasis on school improvement and school effectiveness. His argument is not that what the Government is doing is wrong, but that it falls short.

For example, by applying pressure at local authority and school level when there is evidence to show first that improvement has to happen at the level of the teacher and the learner, and second that the wide differences of effectiveness within schools - class to class, department to department - are insufficiently studied in the search for improvement "drivers".

This is a wide-ranging and serious contribution to the political debate on education. Every chapter is readable and all cast light on current educational issues. Besides the chapters mentioned, others include David Gillborn on race, Denis Gleeson on post-16 education, Bob Moon on the relationship between curriculum and our understanding of how people learn, and former Conservative adviser Stuart Sexton on the future political direction of education.

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