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Education: Bridging the eras

01 February 2013

Dennis Richards casts an eye over some of the latest educational publications

THE staggering price difference between the hardback and the ebook version of Anglican Church School Education: Moving beyond the first 200 years, edited by Howard J. Worsley (Bloomsbury, eBook £23.99 (£21.60); hardback £75 (£67.50); 978-1-4411-2513-2), is a striking indicator that we are indeed moving beyond the first 200 years.

In some ways, the volume represents a bridge between the eras BG and AG. Michael Gove is such a ferociously radical Education Secretary that the book, drawn up at a symposium in 2011 to honour the creation of the National Society 200 years ago, seems almost to represent a more genteel age.

The roll-call of the 15 contributors reads like a Who's Who of church-school education over the past half-century. Priscilla Chadwick, David Lankshear, Jeff Astley, Leslie Francis, Alan Brown, Trevor Cooling, and the editor, Howard Worsley, all have an impressive and extensive list of publications and learned articles in this field to their names.

The writing is, therefore, clear, succinct, and a comprehensive summary of the Church's involvement in the state education system since its inception. It will deservedly take its place in acadenic establishments, and will feature in research articles for years to come.

The four sections of the book make its remit very clear. The history section cannot be faulted, nor the reflection on current philosophy and practice. In terms of the volume's final section, subtitled "Blue-sky Thinking" (are we really still using that kind of terminology?), it is not the editor's fault that Mr Gove has clouded our blue skies in a way that none of us could possibly have imagined.

This volume is embedded in a culture of defending church schools. Mr Gove positively likes church schools. He has no problem with a Heinz 57 varieties of religious establishments. The problem is his almost visceral hatred of local authorities. The Academies Act of 2011 is mentioned only once in nearly 300 pages.

It is little known that any new school has to be an academy. Mayans prophesying the end of the world, with a safe refuge in some obscure village, could probably secure Mr Gove's permission to open a school, provided it is an academy. The blue skies now have any number of flying saucers. It is chaos out there.

Dr Chadwick's masterly summary of the grant-maintained-status debate in the '90s makes that the first article to wait for when she brings us up to date in any forthcoming reprint.

At her disposal will be a brilliant résumé of the point we have reached. The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All, by Richard Pring (Routledge, £25.99 (£23.40); 978-0-415-53636-3), is hot off the press, and it shows. He fills in some of the gaps in the previous volume, but without particular refence to church schools.

Local authorities are being systematically replaced by a whole range of sponsors, trusts, and providers. Readers will learn of E-Act, ARK, and Cognita, all now managing schools in significant numbers. Mr Gove's skies will shortly be invaded by ever more surreal bodies. Kunskapsskolan ("the knowledge school") is a particularly baffling prospect. At least Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are familiar names. We just had not necessarily thought of them as in the vanguard of curriculum development. That really is flying a kite. The skies are not just clouded, they're pretty much crowded as well.

Professor Pring has held the Chair of Educational Studies at Oxford for many years. His writing is mercifully free of jargon, and he gives a cogent and readable account of where Pilot Officer Gove is taking us. "In the pursuit of reform," Professor Pring says, "we are witnessing the most radical changes in the educational system in England since the Second World War."

The language is neither melodramatic nor hyperbolic. Put simply - and Professor Pring is a master of that particular art - we are seeing a seismic shift from the dream of a well-educated workforce to a more prosaic vision of a well-trained one. Education returns to being a privilege of the minority. GCSE is now routinely "trashed", and there is widespread undermining of what schools were asked to deem as success as recently as two years ago.

Professor Pring argues the case that secondary education for all - and, equally importantly, how we judge its success - needs a complete overhaul. But this is by no means an anti-Gove diatribe. He accepts that vast investment has not produced the desired result. Nevertheless, he has no qualms in referring to "the draconian increase in central-government power". Nor can he resist the side-swipe warning to the current incumbent that "too much power gained by one minister may be used for the opposite purposes by the next".

Of an altogether more practical flavour is Encounters on the Edge, No. 55: Thirst (Church Army, £4; individual copies available from www.encountersontheedge.org.uk). It is an account of what happened when a group of parents met at the school gate in a down-at-heel area of Cambridge (yes, there is such a thing). Coming to the conclusion that, to many, "church" means people in an alien building, meeting on an inconvenient day, at an inconvenient time, the group first agree to meet in each other's homes.

Believing that "church" is people, the innovative step comes when they return to the school - not at the gate this time, but in the building.

"What does the school make of it all?" the last chapter in the pamphlet asks. It is worth buying for these pages alone, in which the benefits to the school are described. It is an impressive list. Lifts to appointments; helping parents to deal with bereavement, divorce, separation, and prison; and providing cookery lessons and spiritual succour. Wonderful.

"Go to a place neither of you have been before," the subtitle says. Mr Gove would be proud of that.

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