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Top education books: Catastrophising and chocolate

14 February 2020

Dennis Richards reviews the latest education titles

THE coronavirus has been scary headline news. . . The recent images from Australia gave the impression of a whole continent on fire. . . Iran mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner with appalling loss of life. . . Where to stop? Grenfell? Holocaust Memorial Day?

In such circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine a more timely volume than Dawn Huebner’s superb Something Bad Happened: A kid’s guide to coping with events in the news, for six- to 12-year-olds. Wonderfully illustrated by Kara McHale, it exudes compassion and common sense. Designed to help parents talk about serious national and international events, the book refers only to unspecified “bad things”.

The instructions on how to make best use of the volume could not be clearer: read it with children, and not at bedtime. Ensure that the “bad thing” has not happened to an individual child. Given the writer’s clinical-psychology background, the strongest sections of the book deal with how our brains react to scary events.

Brain “high alerts” are useful when the danger is real. We are scared when something bad happens, however far away and unusual. I’d wager everyone of us has wondered “Could this happen to me?” In those circumstances, the brain “high alert” was a false alarm. We have “catastrophised”. Brilliant.

Crisis, Controversy and the future of Religious Education, by L. Philip Barnes, is an important book. it is hot off the press in more senses than one. While some may feel that the author has been deliberately provocative, his research, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the work of all the “big names” in Religious Education over the past 60 years, cannot be faulted. He has reserved his particular ire for HMI and other commentators, who described the years from 1993 to 2010 as a “golden age” for RE.

Barbara Wintersgill and Alan Brine, Her Majesty’s Inspectors at the time, are the villains of the piece. Palmer implies that they believed that their so-called “golden age” came to an end because they had retired. To this can be added the abolition of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, and clumsy reforms initiated by the incoming Coalition Government of 2010.

In the days when head teachers saw RE GCSE as a relatively easy “filler” to reach the Holy Grail of 5 Grade Cs or above, entries soared. With the arrival of the Ebacc and RE’s non-inclusion, most have seen this as the point where the rot set in.

Not so, Palmer argues. The real crisis in RE has been there for many years, and has far more to do with the longstanding poor quality of teaching and learning than it does with the ebb and flow of exam entries. There is much more to this volume. Confessional or non-confessional RE? Can RE take on moral education? It’s all here. The second in a trilogy, they will become a standard texts in RE curriculum studies for years to come.

On a different level, The Man You’re Made to Be, by Martin Saunders, attempts a “chatty” approach to the changing attitudes of boys. It is easy to see how tricky the subject has become, given that, when I left my review copy in the staff room, two or three colleagues told me that the title made them “feel uncomfortable”. Be that as it may, there is little to fear here.

Whether it works is another question. It is most certainly a worthy attempt, and most readers will, at the very least, appreciate the author’s self-deprecating humour. He tells us about difficulties with his weight; and his struggle to make sense of Lent by giving up his smartphone. There are “think about” questions at the end of each chapter which are particularly useful.

I am unsure that he has touched the right nerve with the inevitable sex chapter, although I loved the way he teases his readers. “This is the sex chapter. I’m putting that piece of information up front because I imagine it will be extremely useful if you are scanning through the pages looking for it.” The bang-up-to-date, and therefore most useful, chapter is on “Banter”, or “Bantz”. It could have been written for the three amigos in Cold Feet.

The wordy subtitle of The Expert Teacher: Using pedagogical content knowledge to plan superb lessons will tell you that this is another volume primarily for the University Education Department library. There will be classroom teachers enthused by what Michael Marland once called “the craft of the classroom”. The majority are too hard-pressed to examine their technique, when Year 8 are waiting at the classroom door five times a week.

That being said, at least once in a career, we teachers should be made to consider the ideas advanced by Darren Mead. He is a genuine “one-off” classroom practitioner. It is not an easy book, but it is brimming with ideas and excellent value for money.

Regular readers of the education supplement may well believe that no summary of recently published RE work is complete without a contribution from Grove Books, arguably the most prolific and best-value RE publishing house.

This latest offering, Loving and Serving Your Local School, by Matt Brown, is typical. It is a lovely, warm-hearted picture of how Brown involved himself in his school. But he did so having done his homework, and with a realistic, albeit always gracious, attitude to the task in hand.

If you can run a lunch-time club called “Cheese and Jesus”, you can pretty much take anything on. And, apparently, “most importantly, buy the receptionist a box of chocolates at Christmas.” Point taken.

Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.


Something Bad Happened: A kid’s guide to coping with events in the news
Dawn Huebner
JKP £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


Crisis, Controversy and the Future of Religious Education
L. Philip Barnes
Routledge £27.99
Church Times Bookshop £25.20


The Man You’re Made to Be
Martin Saunders
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


The Expert Teacher: Using pedagogical content knowledge to plan superb lessons
Darren Mead
Crown House £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10


Loving and Serving Your Local School
Matt Brown
Grove Books £3.95
Church Times Bookshop £3.55

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