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Top four books on education

14 June 2019

Dennis Richards reviews new education titles


THIS is confession time. After a long career in education, I can lay fair claim to have spotted most of the bad ideas; but, in one case at least, I spectacularly failed to spot a good one. Shame on me.

It must have been 30-odd years ago when Bob Simpson, a former colleague, turned up to school with his dog. Bob was a French teacher, and a good one. Connie the dog was the love of his life, and spent much of the day dutifully waiting for him, in full sight of his classroom.

Connie had the patience and good will that all dog owners recognise and cherish. Three times a day — two breaks and at lunchtime — Bob would release a joyous Connie and walk with her round the school grounds. He was soon followed by a gaggle of the helpless and the hopeless, who clamoured for the privilege of walking Connie and feeding her. Soon — and I can say this now without fear of wrecking Bob’s career — he was releasing students from his classes for the same purpose.

It gives me a wonderful frisson of joy to imagine what today’s OFSTED inspector would have made of it.

“Now then, young man, what are you doing?”

“I’m taking Connie for a walk, sir.”

“How come?”

“Mr Simpson lets me do it, ’cos I’m no good at French.”

It was the school joke that Connie used to go home more exhausted than Bob. It never occurred to me at the time that she was probably doing a more useful job than Bob as well.

Animals have been a familiar feature of school life for decades. Goldfish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and the school rabbit. But rarely, if ever, a dog. Now a “well-being dog” is rapidly becoming de rigueur in all types of schools.

Cheryl Drabble works in a special school, and is therefore brilliantly placed to write Introducing a School Dog: Our adventures with Doodles the Schnoodle. Why? Because, in her particular environment, every detail, in these health-and-safety-conscious times, has to be examined and tested in depth. Doodles has a timetable, wears a high-vis jacket when necessary, has a rigorously observed fitness-and-health regime, and is adored by the children.

Drabble’s lovely book is first off the blocks, and tells moving stories of Doodles’s impact on individual children — and the staff. It is also clear about the dangers, and is never over-sentimentalised. It is pretty much indispensable for any school thinking of taking this step.

I’m not quite ready to say that every school should have a Doodles, but, having read this book, I’m getting there. And a belated “Well done” to my old colleague Bob. Never in a million years would he have imagined that he would be in the vanguard of educational thinking.
Supporting Kids and Teens with Exam Stress in School is another winner from the Jessica Kingsley stable. Furthermore, in the case of the subject under discussion here, it really does apply to all schools — and will do so for some time yet.

I would like to tell you that the Department for Education has heeded the urgent warnings about stress in schools, but I suspect that any significant changes will have to wait for some time yet.

Joanne Steer’s volume is a teacher’s dream. Let’s deal with the practical stuff first. Don’t be put off by the price: all the worksheets can be photocopied, and the text is easy and user-friendly. You have enough material here for a whole year’s worth of Study Skills lessons, written by an expert clinical psychologist, imbued with the latest thinking on mindfulness and thinking skills.

There is plenty for adults here as well. “‘Always put your own oxygen mask on first.’ Just like the cabin staff telling you to put your own oxygen mask on first before your children’s.” Brilliant! I’d always wondered about that. But, in reality, it makes perfect sense.

Secondary-school religious-studies teachers will love Thinking About Science and Christianity in Schools. It is not, in itself, enough of a textbook for A-level RS, but it will give a splendid introduction to five of the main themes in any RS Philosophy of Religion course. All the usual hallmarks of a Grove Books production are there: it is excellent value, very readable, and very much a stimulus for further study.

Adrian Brown’s biography is a familiar one. He embarked on Natural Sciences at Cambridge as a committed atheist, and quickly shifted ground to the extent that his “dogmatic atheism had unwittingly been replaced by a fundamentalist reading of scripture”. He disarmingly tells us that he became so proficient at the latter stance that he wrote a post-graduate dissertation on it, and received a distinction.

“With hindsight, I find this embarrassing,” he states. He now holds what might be described as a mainstream position. In other words, your students are in very safe hands. And, as a bonus, there is plenty to make you smile as well.

Ann Weissgarber’s hauntingly beautiful novel The Glovemaker is a work of fiction, but is loosely based on historical events. A group of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) settled in a remote part of Utah in the late 19th century. They practise polygamy, and are being persecuted and pursued by US marshals. In essence, a power struggle is in play: the state versus religious bigotry and intolerance. Such communities cannot be left in peace. Children’s lives are being irreparably blighted.

It is reminiscent of After the Fire by Will Hill, and is loosely based on the events at Waco, and David Koresh a hundred years later. The Glovemaker will grace the fiction section of any school library. The conditions are harsh, the landscape dominates the novel’s atmosphere, but it is the courage and perceptiveness of the heroine, Deborah, that give the novel its raison d’être.

Older teenagers can safely be pointed towards this novel as an example of what happens when forceful men shape their surroundings to their taste, on the back of a highly dubious and manipulative use of religion. Women and children invariably suffer.


Introducing a School Dog: Our adventures with Doodles the Schnoodle
Cheryl Drabble
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40


Supporting Kids and Teens with Exam Stress in School: A workbook
Joanne Steer
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70


Thinking About Science and Christianity in Schools
Adrian Brown
Grove Books £3.95
Church Times Bookshop £3.55


The Glovemaker
Ann Weissgarber
Mantle (Pan Macmillan) £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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