Key Debates in Education

Author(s) Davies, Ian; Gregory, Ian and McGuinn, Nick
Publisher Continuum
Pages 173
ISBN 0826451284
Reviewed by Stephen Ward
Bath Spa Univeristy College
Review published 1 December 2004

The study of Education in universities has tended to be mainly as the theoretical background to initial and inservice teacher training. In recent years control by the Teacher Training Agency has reduced the teacher training curriculum to the skills required for compliance with the standards for teaching. In response a number of universities have developed Education Studies as a non-ITT undergraduate subject and the numbers on such courses is growing rapidly. These courses allow for critical discussion of educational topics free of the constraints of training for professional practice. They enable the study of education as a free-standing topic in itself for those who may not be entering the teaching profession. But they also provide the opportunity for future teachers to adopt a thoughtful and critical analysis of educational issues and policies in advance of their training in a PGCE course. It is in this way that the 'compliance culture' which now pervades teacher training might be resisted. Key Debates in Education is a most welcome book for the study of education and for teacher training in that it starts from the principle that all aspects are matters for debate, not merely discovering and applying 'best practice'.

The authors teach at the University of York which is one of the few universities which has run courses in pure Education Studies since the late 1960s. The introduction argues the case for debating education and we are given substantial biographical details of the authors. This proves to be an important feature, for the book is structured by the three colleagues debating a series of topics with each other. In one chapter a particular perspective is argued and then followed by an alternative view from another author. The strength of this is that it allows students to see the underlying theoretical positions and enables access to the way the author's thinking is influenced by his own experiences in teaching. For example, in the section on education policy, Ian Gregory argues that the current centralised control of education damages learning by removing the voice and authority of the teacher from the process and content of the curriculum. In his response making the case for a government framework, Nick McGuinn reflects on his own career as a secondary English teacher. He shares his doubts about what children were actually learning in 'the good old days' when he, the teacher, determined the curriculum and could take a class through a home-grown topic on devising a soap opera.

But this is not merely a series of personalised accounts. Instead the book offers a rigorous analysis of theoretical principles in a series of well-chosen topics: the aims of education; learning; teaching and the profession; education policy. A final topic, Education for a better world, discusses whether teachers can realistically make a difference. Each section introduces the key thinkers in the area and draws out the contrasting philosophical assumptions. For example, the section on learning is not the simple-psychology trip round Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, but opens up the social and political assumptions about learning which underlie the debate. The reader is well informed by succinct and accurate background information in each of the topics. There is, though, one erroneous reference to the timing of the Swann Report of 1985. Each section includes a list of activities and key questions which make the book very useful for teaching in Education Studies. The final section of the book is a helpful summary of educational thinkers.

The 1990s saw much vicious and personalised political debate about education initiated by successive secretaries of state and one chief inspector of schools. It was designed to intimidate teachers and to force them to comply with the government's agenda. The effect of this has sometimes been to make undergraduate students wary of engaging in debate. The collegiate discussion in this book, with its careful balancing of ideas and perspectives, is a welcome antidote. It demonstrates the way debate about education can be both an engaging academic activity, but also an inspiration to informed practice. It is only a pity that there is no female perspective among the authors.