Reassuring handbooks, Marie Bell

What Makes a Good School? 
G P Books, Wellington, 1990, $12.95

Your Toddler
Mary Stevenson and David Geddis,
G P Books, Wellington, 1990, $12.95

What Makes a Good School? is timely. It aims to help parents, particularly those on boards of trustees, to know a good school when they see one. Most parents worry about their children’s education and how it will prepare them for adult life, and probably never more than today when jobs are scarce. But actually is a good school? Every adult person has ideas on this subject, mainly drawn from their own good or bad experiences. Acknowledging this problem, the authors embark on a brief history of New Zealand schooling.

It shows that nothing much has changed. Moves towards equality through education have on the whole failed; private schools have flourished, the best resources have gone to private schools – for boys – and the ‘best’ State schools have imitated private schools, and continue to do so. Moreover, despite official affirmation for social skills and success for all, the aims that continue to rank most highly for parents are academic achievement and being prepared for a career.

However, the tone of the book remains positive. Beleaguered teachers are considered respectfully, the correlation emphasised between teacher expectations, pupil results and good classroom practice. Discipline, always a criterion by which a school is judged, is also discussed; so is that very New Zealand problem, the relative failure of Maori pupils. Here the blame is laid squarely on the school system, but the authors fail to examine the obvious corollary that schools reflect their society. Girls in New Zealand are also still educationally disadvantaged; boys have greater opportunities and perform better. Why? The authors suggest that subject choice is the main reason – though here too one might ask, is this not a reflection of society’s values as much as the fault of the school?

The complex issue of mainstreaming is well aired; so is employment, and in this case the authors do argue that we cannot, at least, blame the schools for unemployment. What they do is urge parents to ensure that their children acquire a broad general education as a base, and then some formal qualifications as well (not always an easy goal to attain, as cynicism among teenagers surveying the job market rises).

This book is a useful tool for parent education; I regret, however, that it lacks supporting evidence for its claims (who answered questionnaires? took part in surveys?). with this reservation, I believe it offers valuable and constructive information for parents. Its final criterion is its best: the good school ‘… is not complacent, does not stick rigidly to established ideas and routines, but continually redefines and examines itself to meet the changing needs of students, parents, teachers and the community at large’.

But education begins long before school. Your Toddler speaks to the parents who worry whether or not their pre-schooler’s more unmanageable behaviour is ‘normal’. Stevenson and Geddis are reassuring: they set out norms, explain them, and against this background of the predictable, discuss conditions that actually should cause concern. These include stuttering, left-handedness and night waking; advice is given on ways of handling these conditions and on sources of help and support. Helping agencies do all seem to be of the official kind, which is a pity since these services are becoming increasingly expensive and severely stretched. I would have liked more on the subject of mothers joining self-help groups; other mothers are an important source of reassurance in matters like sleep management, every parent’s problem at some time. And in difficult economic times everyone needs the support of others with similar situations and problems.

This help in fact is available to many Maori and Pacific Island women through Kohanga Reo and Pacific Island language nests, yet there is hardly a mention in the book that these ethnic groups exist in New Zealand. A fuller section on how to join or form a group would have been very useful.

However, I like the way parents are encouraged to make their own decisions and have confidence in themselves: ‘Listen to the advice everyone gives you about toilet training, and then do what suits you best’. I would have liked to see more about ways in which the male partner can be drawn in as a source of support though; he is not mentioned much at all, yet it is well established that children do best where there is harmony between the adults in child management.

Safety in the home in physical terms is well covered, but the danger that parents, stressed, depressed and unhappy, may be driven to taking out their frustrations on their small children is barely mentioned; it is a real gap in the book’s array of information that this vital issue is neglected. On the other hand, the positive aspects of being a toddler are affirmed – that this is a time for learning, problem solving, language development, experimenting, creating, building basic concepts about science and the arts. ‘Toddlers have to experiment in order to learn’. The only notable lack here is a surprising silence on the subject of books and reading. I have another reservation; the management of difficult feelings (confusion at children’s jealousy, for instance) is discussed, but has little advice on how to express these fears. In general, the handbook will give reassurance in many homes, especially those managed by a full-time mother in a nuclear family. There are many families, however, whose ethnic background and economic circumstances will allow them only limited benefit from Your Toddler.


Marie Bell lectures at the Wellington College of Education in the newly developed three-year training course for early childhood students.



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Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Review
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