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Education: Universities ‘need wider vision’

20 September 2013

Dennis Richards reviews a new selection of education books

THE A-level results season is over for another year. The script is a familiar one. Are the exams getting easier? Are A levels fit for purpose? Are standards going up or down?

There have been some interesting trends to note: the continuing rise in entries in the "hard" subjects, for example maths and physics, and at the same time the calamitous collapse in modern-language entries. But the real story is what students will do next; the years of a seamless transition into higher education are over.

We are now well into an era where students are facing a lifestyle choice as to whether they load themselves down with huge debts in fees and living costs in the hope of a highly paid, successful career as the pay off. Just the moment, then, for What Are Universities Good For? by Stephen Heap (Grove Books, £3.95 (£3.56)).

Grove Books have a well- deserved reputation for thought-provoking pamphlets. And their strapline is a brilliant summary of what they are about: "Not the last word . . . but often the first". Heap's thesis is clear: "It can be argued that society needs more from its universities than contribution to the economy".

Having set out, in easily readable and accessible chapters, a digest of the development of university education in England, Heap concludes that, for financial reasons, we are moving inexorably towards what he calls a "fundamentally instrumentalist view of education". And for Christians this will "never be adequate".

 Heap has clearly got to grips with recent reports on higher education, including Dearing and Browne, and is particularly dismissive of the latter. Browne's "main concern is ensuring that the needs of the economy are met". Using the writings of influential theologians, including David Ford and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, Heap has no difficulty in pleading the case for a far wider vision.

 It is inspiring stuff. But it is clearly not the last word. Schools are subjected to rigorous checking through OFSTED, and have been so for nearly 20 years. As Christians, we presumably welcome the expansion of higher education from the 1990s onwards, with all the finacial implications involved.

Being disparaging about an "economic" model does not dispense with the question: "Who pays?", nor with a student's wish to have value for money. Universities can give the impression that teaching gets in the way of research. Three lectures a week and a tutorial no longer passes muster. We need an OFSTED equivalent for Higher Education - OFHED perhaps - and a follow-up pamphlet from Grove.

One of the joys of education is its range. University students were also young once. Tom, Katie and Friends, by Eira Reeves and Shirley Pope (LDA Findel Education series of four titles, £5 each, £19 for a pack of four), is an engaging series of stories written for young children up to the age of six.

With the self-explanatory titles of Care, Are Kind, Love, and Tease the four stories reflect the author's years as a midday supervisor (she will certainly have seen at close hand how badly children can be- have towards each other). Tease is a particularly telling example. Three children are teased, one as a result of having ginger hair, another be- cause he is too small, and the other cannot catch a ball. Beautifully illustrated, and Early Years children will love them.

And then, of course, we have all stations in between in Teaching Narnia: A cross-curricular classroom and assembly resource by Olivia Warburton (BRF, £6.99).

The Narnia stories have not enjoyed a particularly good press in recent years. Openly accused of sexism and racial stereotyping by some, and rejected as clumsy evangelism by others, the stories remain stubbornly attractive to Key Stage 2 children (aged seven to 11), and remain on best-seller lists year after year.

Warburton addresses all this head-on: no doubt in 50 years' time critics will be debunking J. K. Rowling in a similar way. Lewis wrote his masterpiece in 1950, not 2013. The context, skilfully drawn out by the author, was the grinding deprivation and greyness of Britain in the immediate post-war years.

This is a wonderful resource in which the stories are allowed to speak for themselves. The lesson plans provide a stimulating trigger for the imagination, and for creativity, and all of it in a meaningful way. Lewis wrote the Narnia Chronicles as children's stories, not as evangelistic tracts. And in this volume their "ancient power" shows why they have stood the test of time.

The author is a Cambridge English Literature graduate. Teachers can use this volume in literacy and/or religious education with total confidence. I suspect Lewis would approve of that more than anything else.

The volume is published by the Bible Reading Fellowship. Wisely, books intended for schools go under the logo "Barnabas in Schools".

From the same stable comes Wow! Our Amazing Planet: A cross-curricular conservation resource by D. Chandler (BRF, £9.99). If you buy only one book related to schools and the environment, this is the one. Everything about it is exciting. Its great strength is its focus on the local environment: bees, butterflies, blackbirds, snails, slugs, and spiders. Children will love the titles of these sections, such as "The birdy bits" and "The wriggly bits".

The more serious stuff is covered as well, in the same buzzy style. We have troubled species, troubled climate, and troubled places. There are colouring-in templates, word searches, and a strong Christian emphasis that the world is merely loaned to us to look after. A bril-liant resource, and excellent value.

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