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Education: Are teachers being too nice?

21 September 2012

Dennis Richards takes a look at some of the latest educational books and resources

THE nation's teachers are returning to school in sombre mood. It may be overstretching the point to say that the summer has seen a battle for the soul of English education; nevertheless, the furore over the decline in this year's English GCSE results is symptomatic of a sharp division of opinion.

For Michael Gove et al., GCSE has become so ludicrously easy that it is no longer fit for its purpose. On the other hand, cynical practitioners on the ground believe that our political - mostly public-school-educated - masters are disconcerted by an exam in which children of relatively modest ability are achieving success. The drive to bring back "proper exams", to raise the boundaries for higher grades, and to ban re-sits will all have a markedly negative effect on middle-to-lower-ability children.

Encouragement is a vital tool in the teacher's armoury, in the quest to reach a target which is achievable. Praise, Motivation and the Child, by Gill Robins (Routledge, £21.99 (£19.80); 978-0-415-68174-2), is, therefore, a particularly timely volume. It calls into question some of the assumptions that praise is always, by definition, positive. It is a volume that makes a real contribution to a genuine debate whether, in our rush to praise children for almost anything, we devalue both them and the system.

It is a thesis that causes controversy, but, since I was recently asked to present an award to a child "for opening the door nicely", I have some understanding why a debate might be necessary.

It is not easy, as the words "Well done" are engraved on every teacher's heart. We find ourselves saying well done to the bus driver for getting us from A to B, to the postman for delivering our letters, and to the waiter who successfully serves us with a cup of coffee.

I suspect that Mr Gove would enjoy this book, and it would certainly provoke debate in the staffroom, and on a PGCE course.

But even GCSE results that are lower than expected are put into perspective by Young People, Death and the Unfairness of Everything, by Nick Luxmoore (Jessica Kingsley, £13.99 (£12.60); 978-1-84905-276-4).

By the law of averages, it is almost certain that every head teacher who serves for any length of time will have to confront the desperately difficult situation created by the death of a student. This honest book - sometimes painfully so - is far more than a primer for dealing with the death of a child. It is, rather, a clearly written and jargon-free analysis of how young people themselves see death.

The author is brave enough to include some awful gaffes from his own work as a counsellor. It is an approach to be treasured. We so often learn how to react in a given situation by observing the mess that others have made before us. We shudder as the author recounts how he carelessly assumed that a student was aware that his father had committed suicide rather than dying of natural causes.

And, talking of suicide, Cyberbullying and E-safety: What educators and other professionals need to know, by Adrienne Katz (Jessica Kingsley, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-1-84905-276-4) is a comprehensive, bang-up-to-date compendium about how the British teenagers' addiction to smartphone use has changed our society for ever. Even the fear of being stranded without a phone now has a name - "nomophobia", apparently. Worse still is the fearful rise in cyber-bullying, which has tragically led to a spate of teenage suicides. Because relationships, relaxation, and recreation are now all managed on a mobile, there may be, for a short while, a lull in the pace of technological development.

This superbly researched book has, therefore, just a chance of remaining relevant and useful for longer than many previous volumes. It is currently the essential guide to the sheer awfulness of some children's experiences of cyber-bullying, and current best practice in both putting a stop to it and preventing it from happening in the first place.

One group of teachers will begin the year with some excitement and not a little trepidation. They will be worrying about sitting in the wrong chair in the staff room, and whether to address the head teacher by his or her first name. But, most of all, their anxieties will centre on the classroom and the children's response. What If It Happens In My Classroom?, by Kate Sida-Nicholls (Routledge, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-415-68714-0), has a particularly captivating title, and the volume more than lives up to it. Older teachers will remember Michael Marland's The Craft of the Classroom. This is a worthy successor. Marland had no advice about what to do when a student makes a homophobic comment, nor if a student spends the entire lesson texting his mates. That did not happen 30 years ago.

My favourite is the discussion about what to do if a student falls asleep in your lesson. Staffroom veterans will say leave well alone and enjoy some peace; a sadist in the maths department will recount with glee how he solves the problem with a well-aimed board rubber. Consulting this volume may enable some hapless NQT to avoid a career-ending accident.

On the other hand, if half the "What ifs" in this book happened in a newly qualified teacher's classroom, he or she would not survive until Christmas. And what would I have done if a student had sat in my chair? I am rather glad I never thought of that.

As ever, assembly takers across the land will be grateful for the chance to add more volumes to the already groaning assembly shelf. New ideas are always welcome when the responsibilty is daily for 39 weeks. Where in the World?, by Martin Payne (BRF, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-85746-155-1), has material both for the classroom and collective worship. The migration of swallows at the end of summer has always been a thing of wonder: the author skilfully uses this annual miracle to explore the Christian faith through the eyes of the world-wide church. From somewhere to everywhere is its engaging sub-theme. An ideal resource for both RE and worship in the autumn term.

Its global focus could usefully be followed by Primary School Assemblies for Religious Festivals, edited by Ronni Lamont (SPCK, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-28106-697-1). In schools where the pupil population comes from a variety of faith traditions, this volume will be especially valuable. While the danger of a superficial "Thomas Cook Tour of World Religions" is ever present in such a volume as this, there is a real depth of feeling and empathy in the impressive writing. It is warm in tone, and appreciative of diversity and difference.

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