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A-Z of Education

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by Chris O'Kalan

I admit I don't know quite what to make of Chris O'Kalan's book. Although entertaining in parts, it isn't - and doesn't purport to be - a purely humorous work. "Sardonic" is the word that springs to mind when reading the first few entries, because these have clearly been written by a teacher, and a disillusioned one at that. Yet O'Kalan's A-Z of Education can hardly be described as instructional. It is something of a hybrid, with entries ranging from the factual ("ACAS", "YTS") to the fanciful ("Acne", "Zebra") and even the obscure ("accession", "zoologist").

The alphabetical arrangement isn't exactly helpful. Is this really intended as a reference book, in which people will look up particular terms (forgive the pun)? If so, why do the first six letters of the alphabet cover the first 178 pages, leaving only 82 pages for the remaining twenty letters? If not, then general subject headings might have been more effective in leading the reader from one topic to another. Since many of the entries are no more than excuses for lengthy anecdotes, there would be little lost by doing away with the definitions altogether. Appropriate space could then be devoted to coherent topics such as drugs, a subject that - in various guises - seems to take up about a third of the volume.

My overall impression is that this book, amusing and/or punchy as it may be, is not going to be fully appreciated by the uninitiated, ie. non-teachers. The blackboard-style typeface suggests that it is intended to be subversive. The publicity says that it is directed at "teachers, pupils and parents". I remain dubious about the breadth of its appeal. Some of the entries are guaranteed not to win the approval of today's sophisticated teenager, viz.

"A religious instructor called Fred
Was informed that his mate (God) was dead,
He thought for a while
Then broke out in a smile,
Then I'll worship the Devil he said!"

And what exactly does "Chopper" have to do with education? Is it present simply for the purpose of getting cheap laughs?

Conversely, the potentially useful entries lack depth and, in some cases, information. Judging by the entry for "Adjective", I deduce that the author has never been an English teacher (at least, I hope not!). It's fairly obvious, too, that he (or she?) has a sizeable chip on his/her shoulder. Read the entry for "Church Schools", for example. According to the blurb, "he tells it how it is in schools today. It may not be pleasant but the truth should not be denied." I wouldn't presume to contradict that statement; we all know that the education system has its problems. However, I'm not sure whether the author's intention is to correct these faults or merely to snipe in a less-than-subtle way at those considered responsible. All in all, I think it's best to treat this as a satirical work, reminiscent of Juvenal's pointed criticisms of Roman petty officialdom.

It is unusual for such a book to be so specialist. Although particular themes may come in for humorous or satirical treatment - politics, sex, death, failure, and so on - they are generally aimed at the widest possible audience. There are exceptions, of course. Scott Adams' phenomenally successful "Dilbert" cartoons, for example, are designed to appeal particularly to employees of the IT industry. Whilst there are surely as many teachers as computer programmers on the planet, A-Z of Education focuses specifically on the British education system, and the potential audience is thus significantly reduced.

All is not lost, however. This is where print-on-demand technology should come into its own. It is not necessary to sell enormous numbers of copies in order to turn a modest profit, and it is no longer necessary to risk producing more copies than are needed to satisfy immediate demand, leaving the surplus to fester on remainder shelves. The challenge now is for Author Publishing Ltd to market this volume effectively within the teaching profession, so as to bring Chris O'Kalan's book to the readership it deserves.


ISBN 1 898030 18 9  Published by Author Publishing Ltd, 2002
260pp, paperback   Retail price 9.50

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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