Testing Times

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Review of 'Another School is Possible', Terry Wrigley, Bookmarks £9.99

For those of us who work in the state education sector, the election of a Labour government nine years ago was greeted with some relief and a degree of optimism. The Tories' damaging attacks on comprehensive education might be brought to an end by Labour.

How wrong we were. As this year's controversial Education Bill makes clear, the Blair government seems determined to privatise and dismantle every remaining aspect of the comprehensive system which has brought gains for the mass of the population over the past 40 years. Instead it turns the clock back to a time when "academic" and so-called "non-academic" children were segregated by school, and then taught to know their place.

Terry Wrigley's Another School is Possible not only offers a sharp and very readable analysis of the corrosive effects of Blair's neo-liberal policies, but as the title suggests, also provides us with an important vision of an alternative school system, one based on social justice and a progressive view of what education is for.

Wrigley's introductory comments offer a brief historical analysis of capitalism's contradictory relationship with mass education, where bosses traditionally need workers who are educated just enough to be profitable, but not independent-minded enough to aspire to a better life.

Testing and literacy are two topics which Wrigley puts under the critical spotlight. Both are seen as weapons in Blair's neo-liberal armoury. For example, Wrigley describes the way that test results are used to accelerate market competition between schools, and the impact of this system on working class students. He demolishes claims that rigorous testing is driving up standards.

Another area discussed in the book is the whole "school effectiveness" and "school improvement" industry which has gathered pace over the past 20 years in the US and Britain. Wrigley painstakingly debunks the myths and refers readers to devastating international evidence which points to the effects of market forces and increased social segregation as key factors in suppressing academic achievement in urban schools.

For me a key phrase in the book is, "It doesn't have to be like this!" The final section of the book takes the reader away from this scary Blairite landscape, and on a liberating journey to some truly exciting schools experimenting with alternative practices. He highlights the stunning academic success of countries such as Finland, whose low rates of selection, minimal testing and professional autonomy for teachers contrast markedly with current government policy in this country.

He discusses an alternative assessment initiative in Queensland, Australia, and recounts his own visits to the amazing Bielefeld Laboratory School in Germany, an experimental, fully comprehensive school which achieves enormous success by breaking all of the officially accepted "school effectiveness" rules.

Ultimately, in trying to encompass such a wide range of subject-matter in just over 100 pages, Wrigley is in one sense attempting the impossible and consequently I think there is occasionally a problem with perspective and balance. For example, the whole issue of faith schools, which remains a controversial debate on the left, is passed over in one paragraph, whereas when concerned with citizenship or literacy comparatively too great an emphasis is placed on the minutiae of classroom practice.

However, this is a really valuable book which draws together a plethora of facts and figures. These kinds of examples and research findings should prove to be dynamite in the hands of anti-academy campaigners, education trade unionists and all those involved in the struggle for a more enlightened and democratic education system.

Another School is Possible is available for just £6.99 from Bookmarks - phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com