What follows is the complete text of John Abbott’s presentation to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in St Andrews, October 2011, and represents the first time our animations have been shown to so many influential people, in one place. The text references slides that can be downloaded separately as a PowerPoint presentation. Click here to download the HMC PowerPoint Presentation

Slide 1. It is a pleasure to be invited to share with you my fear that the English (and by this I largely mean the Anglo-American) model of education, by not challenging historic assumptions, and by failing to keep up with the latest research on how humans learn, is becoming progressively upside down and inside out.

‘Upside down’ because it overemphasises the importance of secondary; ‘inside out’ because it overplays the role of the school and minimises the importance of home and community.

I will rest my case on the need for a better appreciation of the relationship between the pre-pubescent brain and that of the adolescent. My book “Overschooled But Undereducated” elaborates on this.


2. “Knowing what we now know,” I will argue, “we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing what we have always done.” As people with responsibility for today’s adolescents we each need to pause once in a while and consider how we got into this privileged position.


3. It may be hard to recognise your speaker in this photo of me climbing up the beach on VE Day 1945, but that is where my story starts! Events conspired to give me an almost idyllic childhood.


4. You may not think so in this view from my bedroom in the vicarage to which my family moved early in 1946. Portsmouth was then recovering from the Blitz, it was exhausted by the war, and inundated by Displaced Persons. Adaptability and finding novel solutions were our survival skills. An older generation determined to escape from the horrors of war, were generous in their treatment of youngsters such as myself.


4a.There was the retired Hydrographer Royal who taught me about making maps in the China Seas, and whose geometric instruments his widow later gave me.


4b. And Mrs. Purse (excuse the Miss Marple stand-in!), the widow of a former missionary in China who taught me to paint, and thrilled me with stories of sailing in junks on the Yangtze.


4c. And old McFadgen, a former stoker in the Navy who taught me to woodcarve, and whose chisels are still one of my most precious possessions.


5. A quality education, I very early intuited, was like a three-legged stool, which balances the emotions, intellectual rigour, and social relationships – the home, school, and community.

A quality education, I very early intuited, was like a three-legged stool, which balances the emotions, intellectual rigour, and social relationships – the home, school, and community.

6. In January 1953, ration book in hand, I joined the 350 other boys – mostly boarders – at St John’s Leatherhead. Amongst the staff, I encountered a mixture of the war-weary and the idealistic. One of the former was so awful that I only succeeded in passing O Level Latin by boycotting his lessons, and teaching myself. But in the man who taught us both A Level History and English I encountered someone who started me thinking in a joined-up way.


7. Never quite sure if the lesson would be about English, History, Medieval Art or Music, he challenged us to think about the context of every idea. Studying the English Civil War he took us inside the minds of the protagonists by studying the poetry of John Donne and the letters of John Milton.

“I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man
to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices ,
public and private, of peace and war”

John Milton 1642

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne 1624

8. The middle ‘50s were an exciting time to be a teenager. Coming up to 16, two of us hitch-hiked to Scotland and I was enchanted by my first sight of the Hebrides. The whole trip cost less than £4, and I prided myself on getting from Edinburgh, around the North Circular and down to Portsmouth in 14 lifts and 15 hours.


9. Those peaceful, purposeful times were nearly shattered by the Suez crisis of 1957 and the possibility that we would be conscripted into the army. (Note the jingoistic headlines of those newspapers….England still thought it was the policeman of the world). Wanting to ensure that we knew what we might be fighting for, that same History/English teacher set us a mock scholarship question: “The roots of civilisation are twelve inches deep. Discuss.” I’m still struggling to find an adequate answer!


10. I got to university and fed on all the experiences it had to offer.


11 In a T.C.D certificate of education great play was placed on ‘educating human personality’ and stressed that a quality education was more than just subjects.

“In our concentration on academic performance we lose sight of our main business of educating human personality.”

(TES September 1959)

“All considerations of the curriculum should consider ‘how best to use subjects for the purpose of education… rather than regarding education as the by-product of the efficient teaching of subjects’.”

(Sir Phillip Morris, 1952)

12. In my second year I organised an expedition of fourteen year olds to the tiny island of Ulva. I was intrigued with the beauty of the island and the excited inquisitiveness of the youngsters. I later discovered that, 250 years before, another 14 year old, Lachlan MacQuarie, son of the clan chief, had climbed those same hills


13. Turned off their land in the 1770s by sheep farmers, the young Lachlan joined the army, served in the American War of Independence, and was eventually posted to the colony of New South Wales as its governor. He had to sort out the chaos that had prevailed for the previous thirty years. He was eminently successful.


14. When asked years later how he did it, he reflected back to his childhood on Ulva, and wrote, “If you’re born on a mere speck of land…..you become a citizen of the world.”


15. In 1965 I went to teach at MGS where Peter Mason had set out what he saw was the challenge to the successful grammar school, by warning against the arrogance of the meritocrat.

Citizen of the world?

“The idea that talents are lent for the service of others and not given, and that knowledge should bring humility and a sense of involvement in mankind, has to be the necessary corrective to the arrogance of meritocrats, for without this the School’s record of academic success would be indeed alarming.”

“Dare to be wise”

P.G Mason, High Master
Manchester Grammar School, 1965

16. Promoted quickly, I was appointed Headmaster of the 16th century Alleyne’s grammar school in Stevenage, the very term it started to become a comprehensive school. As the youngest secondary head in the country at the time I threw myself into the task convinced that my enthusiasm would make up for the limitations of my experience.

It didn’t.


17. “You have more pilot projects in this school than there aircraft in the RAF, and they are all looping separate loops – where do you think you’re going?” asked my Chair of Governors. A local primary head was brutally frank. “The trouble with secondary schools is that they only understand teaching, and don’t understand enough about how children learn. Not until you get this right nothing much will happen, so give up a week of your time and come and sit on the floor of my reception class, just listen, follow what’s going on and don’t talk too much!”

After a couple of years…

“You have more pilot projects in this school than there aircraft in the RAF, and they are all looping separate loops – where do you think you’re going?”

Chairman of Governors

“The trouble with secondary schools is that they only understand teaching, and don’t understand enough about how children learn. Not until you get this right nothing much will happen, so give up a week of your time and come and sit on the floor of my reception class, just listen, follow what’s going on and don’t talk too much!”

Primary Head

18. I accepted the challenge and, as a secondary teacher with precious little experience of primary education, and not yet having children of my own, I found it an intriguing and salutary experience. Nothing much will happen, Lady Plowden had written ten years earlier, “until [education] is in harmony with the nature of the child nothing much will happen.  That head teacher was right…..I might have known a fair amount about teaching, but didn’t know much about what children did with the ideas that teachers put out.

“At the heart of the educational process lies the child. No advances in policy, no acquisitions of new equipment have their desired effect unless they are in harmony with the nature of the child, unless they are fundamentally acceptable to him.”

Bridget Plowden, 1967

19-20. Jim Callaghan, the Prime Minister, was equally confused about education in 1976 and in his Ruskin College speech invited the general public to explore what he called “the Secret Garden of the Curriculum.” Many heads took offence at what they saw as political meddling and refused to be involved in what Callaghan had intended to be the “Great Debate”. Taking such a stand-offish position provided just the opportunity for Kenneth Baker nine years later to override professional judgement and impose a National Curriculum. Why such confusion?


21. I have now to take you away from the provincial concerns of England. Working totally separately from any Ministry of Education, or university department of education, a number of neural biologists and cognitive scientists around the world, in their search to understand Artificial Intelligence, went back to Darwin’s assertion in 1859 that the very structures of the brain were as much a product of evolution as any other part of the body. As such, they argued, the brain must have preferred ways of working. A key figure was Sir John Eccles, an Australian.

Pedagogy and how humans learn

It was only in the mid-1970s that evolutionary studies and psychology come together, largely as the result of 
the work of Sir John Eccles (Nobel Prize winner, 1965) and his two key books – The Physiology of Synapses (1964), and Evolution Of The Brain : Creation Of The Self (1989).


22. In the late 1980s (just as Baker was setting out the national Curriculum – which is ironic) – this thinking came to be called Neural Darwinism. The clue to successful human learning, they postulated, lay in fully understanding “the grain of the brain.”


23. This work was based on creating a synthesis across many fields of study. We in the West love the easily achieved certainties that we can find in Reductionism. Synthesis is far more speculative and difficult. But as Schrödinger noted in 1944, without such a synthesis “we will be lost forever.”

“A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge at first-hand of some subject, and therefore is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master…

I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost forever) than that some of us should embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with a second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – at the risks of making fools of ourselves.”

Professor Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? (1944)

24. With every year that passes creating such a Synthesis becomes more difficult as academic disciplines subdivide into more and more specialised subcomponents. In the past fifteen years the Initiative has collected several thousand books and research studies, most of which contribute to this.


25. Two of these have the capacity to create a whole New Paradigm for Learning. Fritjof Capra (2002), by adopting  a statement made by the philosopher and politician Vaclav Havel that “Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena”, showed that the brain is predicated as much on its ability to draw things together as it is on reductionism. Matthew Ridley (2003), by a brilliant reversal of the phrase that had dominated university departments of education in the 60s and 70s of “natureversus nurture.” He showed that nature is only revealed vianurture. This was the great breakthrough. Inherited predispositions count. for little if not have released by appropriate nurture.

The Hidden Connections: a science for sustainable living
Fritjof Capra (2002)

“Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between disparate phenomena,” a statement first made by the Czech philosopher and politician Vaclav Havel, and adopted by Capra as the ultimate explanation for the operation of the brain

Nature via Nurture: genes, experience and what makes us human Matt Ridley (2003)

Recent findings in the biomedical sciences show that it was totally wrong to see it as a struggle of nature versus nurture, rather it is the development of nature via nurture.

These two create a whole new paradigm for learning

26. Because our brains prefer pictures and joined-up stories to abstract theory, I will change pace and take you into the emerging world of seriously intentioned animated graphics which are social networks’ equivalent of parables – simple stories with profound meanings

“We are both empowered by the experiences of our ancestors, but we are constrained as well. Driven to live in ways that are utterly uncongenial to our inherited traits and instincts simply drives people mad”

27. What a reversal! Adolescence is not an Aberration – something that should not happen, an unpleasant period of awkwardness from which children should be protected. Rather it is through being “crazy by design” adolescence is actually a critical evolutionary adaptation that is essential to our species’ survival Take a look at a second animation.

A model of learning is needed which would match exactly the neurological progression of the brain of the young child as it transforms itself into the adolescent brain. Adolescents, it seems, have evolved to be apprentice-like learners, not pupils sitting at desks awaiting instruction.

28. No child is a blank slate when it first comes into school, for his or her mind has already been powerfully shaped by the dominant assumptions of the society into which it is born. Take a look at this third animation.

If Matthew Ridley is right that we are as we are because of the way nurture interacts with our nature then a child coming into school already has his or her mind shaped by the dominant assumption of the society in which they are already a member.

29. We live within a culture where our everyday activity is shaped by producing more than we need. And on a day to day level life for many is becoming ever more boring…a word frequently used by children. Boredom is a wearying state created by dull, repetitious or tedious studies. The first recorded use was by Charles Dickens in Bleak House was only in 1852, the high point of the Industrial Revolution. Evolutionary psychology notes that an unengaged adult human is unique amongst the animal species in having no reason for being.


30. Ecologically we live within a ‘closed system’ of a depth of some twenty miles from the top of the stratosphere to the depth of the deepest mines, stretched around a globe with a 35,000 mile circumference at the equator. It really is true that “no man is an island entire unto itself”. If one part is too greedy the rest suffers; if the perceived gap between the rich and the poor gets too great most of us start to feel miserable; if one of either the Old or the New economies so upsets the climate we will all freeze, or all burn up. With two and a half times as many people on the earth’s surface today as the day I was born in 1939 we have ever less living space.


31. Only a fifty/fifty chance of survival? If this is simply because we are becoming too clever for our own good what would you say to the students in your school next week? Let me make it more personal……. this may just last out our time but what of your children or grandchildren?

Facing reality is hard, ignoring it is immoral.


32. We have manufactured a world almost unfit to live in. What is education doing to reverse the process?

Educational impact of Frederick Winslow-Taylor

  • David Wardle the English educational historian wrote, “it was the factory put into the educational setting… Every characteristic was there, minute division of labour… A complicated system of incentives to do good work, an impressive system of inspection, and finally an attention to cost efficiency and the economic use of plant”. That was in 1976
  • “The National Curriculum sets the standards…all schools set targets and measure their performance. They can easily access best practice information. They have increasing opportunities for professional development. They are held to account through inspections and published performance tables.” That was said in 2001
  • In 2011, you know all too much about the impact of league tables and teaching for the test.
  • While successive Ministers of Education are pleased to reiterate that “the work of the Department for Education and employment fits with a new economic imperative of supply-side investment for national prosperity.”

33. More than a dozen years ago I was summoned to explain my argument at the Policy Unit in Downing Street.

That is something really quite awful.

“We can’t fault your theory. You are probably educationally correct and certainly ethically correct. But the system you’re arguing for would require very good teachers. We don’t think there will ever be enough good teachers, and so we’re going for a teacher-proof way of organising schools. That way you get a uniform standard.”

Downing Street Policy Unit, March 1997

34-35. But as someone whose career and personal sympathies span both the maintained and independent sector, and who has had the opportunity of studying the history of the period very carefully, I have to say that the responsibility for this dreadful state of affairs rests squarely on some of your most revered predecessors.

It goes back to 1869 when W E Forster, setting out late in the day to create a national system of schooling proposed using the endowments of some 3,000 old schools to form a nationwide scheme for teacher education. A handful of your predecessors having already used their endowments to create the new boarding schools were infuriated. They effectively hijacked the control of their local endowment funds, challenged government to prevent them, and at the same time founded HMC in 1870.

You were born in a spirit of conflict with a struggling national system of education.

Their refusal to support teacher education seriously impacts to on English schools to this day, perhaps best illustrated by the experience of today’s Finland where only the highest qualified can become teachers, and whose pupils constantly stand at the top of the OECD tables (see this month’s Smithsonian Institution magazine).

Unable to fund a national scheme for teacher education, Forster went ahead and established a national network of School Boards. Within thirty years the School Boards were educating more than half the country’s children, often taking them through to 16 and 17. The rapid popularity and achievements of these Schools outraged your predecessors who saw in the widespread education of those above the age of 14 something that trespassed upon their own privileged preserve.

A simplified history

  • In 1869 W E Forster set out to create a national system of schooling and proposed using the endowments of some 3000 old schools to fund a national scheme for teacher education.
  • This so antagonised a number of your predecessors that they founded this Conference to deny Forster these funds; they succeeded.
  • Consequently you were born in a spirit of conflict with a struggling embryonic national system of education; this seriously impacts on English schools to this day (cf. Finland).

So, in 1902, after a most heated and virulent debate (in which your predecessors lobbied most strongly against the School Boards), Parliament eventually prohibited the raising of taxes to fund any public education above the age of 14. Secondary education became the virtual preserve of the public schools and the few remaining grammar schools. In 1939 only 18% of fourteen year olds were in school – the second lowest proportion of any country in Europe.

  • In 1870 a national system of School Boards was established across the country, based on local taxation, even though this was without any arrangements for teacher education.
  • So successful were these schools that they antagonised both the Church schools and yourselves. Your predecessors were particularly concerned that such schools would infringe upon their almost exclusive interest in secondary education.
  • By 1939 only 18% of 14 year-olds were in school – the second lowest proportion of any country in Europe.

36. There are other shadows still stalking in the wings. In 1944 the former Headmaster of Harrow, Cyril Norwood, together with the classically trained civil servants in the Ministry advised Butler that the only way to administer a national system of education was to divide it, as had Plato, into three tiers – for those with gold, or silver, or iron in their blood. Realising that national finances could only provide for one additional year of schooling, these classicists argued, was to take three years off the elementary school and so create a four-year secondary system. Norwood expected this would make 11 the age of transfer in the state sector so keeping it structurally separate from the Common Entrance at 13 ½.

A whole lecture would be needed to explain how this left state primary schools for the past 70 years struggling to fit an appropriate primary education into 6 years rather than the previous 9, and how – perversely – this has led to far too many secondary schools simply becoming too large for anyone’s good.

There are other shadows…

  • Under the direction of a former Headmaster of Harrow, Cyril Norwood, and overtly classically-trained civil servants, Butler was persuaded to define state secondary education, as had Plato, into thee parts – separating those with gold in their blood from those with silver and iron.
  • With only sufficient funds to lift compulsory education form 14 to 15, Butler accepted his advisers’ Proposal that three years should be taken off the old elementary curriculum and transferred to create a four-year secondary system.
  • It is known that Norwood, by agreeing 11 as the age of transfer, believed that he was keeping the independent and maintained sectors structurally separate.
  • For the past 70 years primary education has struggled to achieve in six years what earlier it had done in nine.

37-38. We must question another aspect of Arnold’s innovation. It was part of his genius that he offered his educational philosophy within boarding schools that very specifically offered parents the opportunity of being rid of their troublesome adolescents. In the socially-mobile latter part of the 19th century this became a winning combination.

It was sort of still working when I went away to school in the early 50s. As I said earlier I greatly enjoyed and benefitted from my experience at St John’s. But in later years I began to realise that as much as I loved St John’s… of Leatherhead, its people, and the county of Surrey beyond I knew virtually nothing. Worse still, I started to lose contact with my own brother and sister. It was, I think, the same for my friends from Epsom, Hurstpierpoint and Harrow. We had all grown up in delightful bubbles cocooned from the world around us.

But even that is not my prime point. So well marketed has the boarding school become that it has entered into the English psyche as being the perfect model of education.  Parents replaced by surrogate parents, tutors often overtly preoccupied with producing perfect pupils, rather than developing thoughtful and confident future adults… all within the warm embrace of the House as surrogate for community.

Maintained secondary schools seeking to attract more pupils to otherwise empty desks now try to present themselves as being able to do everything… which of course pleases hard-pressed parents too busy to create a stimulating home background, (and too nervous to risk anything as dangerous as letting their children hitch-hike to Scotland) and according to the latest calculations now fill their homes with £7.3 billion of toys and ingenious games of ‘painting-by-numbers’ which provide almost instants satisfaction but don’t stretch creativity sufficiently.   Schools have become very very busy places. Too busy to leave enough time for anyone, teacher or pupil, to really think for themselves. How Socrates would despair.

Remember St Augustine? “I learned most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me.”

And those of you whose once predominantly boarding schools find yourselves recruiting more day pupils, are you not now trying to squeeze that ‘broadly based’ curriculum you once covered in 7 days of 24 hours, into 5 days on only 8.30 to 5.30? No wonder your pupils look so hammered.

Dr Arnold’s legacy

  • It was Arnold’s genius to link boarding education to a revamped classical curriculum and so rid ambitious, aspiring Victorians of dealing with the problems of adolescence.
  • Over the years boarding schools too easily became delightful bubbles cocooned from the outside world.
  • Recently secondary schools have become increasingly busy places as they have taken on to themselves responsibilities for which they were not designed. Those of you in predominantly boarding schools, now recruiting ever more day pupils, are attempting to squeeze your originally broadly-based curriculum, once covered in 7 days each of 24 hours, into 5 days working only from 8.30 to 5.30.
  • No wonder both you and your pupils can easily look so hammered!

If you continue to apply the wrong model of learning, for the very best of reasons, you will never get the results you seek…

As Einstein once remarked, “you will never solve a problem by using the same thinking that created that problem in the first place”.

39. These questions demand urgent thought. We need to be much clearer about our vision.

For far too many years there has been talk of a crisis in education. The Statute Book is littered with regulations for ever more innovations which, because they were originally designed to deliver short-term benefits, have already disappeared into a murky past.

Just what are we all about?

I would like to set you two questions – not to be answered this morning – but perhaps to be sent to me alter by email, not in any sense for correction, far from it, but to get all of us thinking together about what needs to happen

My first question is about purpose:

Are you preparing your pupils to be pilgrims (as in John Bunyan’s meaning in Pilgrim’s Progress), or customers?

My second question is about process:

What kind of education for what kind of world? Are our children battery-hens or free-range chickens?

40. A highly energetic Secretary of State seeks extensive collaboration with your schools, on the basis, it seems, that there can be a one-way exchange of ideas. You with your specific backgrounds can, apparently, take on the running of new academies, a new interpretation of schools whose one clear distinction is that they will be free from the control of locally elected education officials. What, however, is not clear is how HM Treasury (through the office of the Secretary of Education) will monitor and hold someone accountable for the billions of pounds of public money that all this will involve. Many details remain to be worked out. Michael Gove is quite properly inviting your support, and it is only right that you should earn your charitable status by demonstrating the public good.

What, however, is not clear is how HM Treasury (through the office of the Secretary of Education) will monitor and hold someone accountable for the billions of pounds of public money that all this will involve. Many details remain to be worked out. Michael Gove is quite properly inviting your support, and it is only right that you should earn your charitable status by demonstrating the public good.

41. It is not the DNA that is at fault but the lack of the appropriate nurture to draw it out. Putting to one side for a moment how offensive this was to the large numbers of hardworking staff in maintained schools, working under conditions that I suspect some of you cannot really contemplate – means that there is a fundamental fault in his analogy , and I submit in current political expectations.

A couple of years ago Andrew Adonis caught the headlines by saying he wanted to borrow some of your DNA so as to improve the maintained sector.

42. Let me give you an analogy. Both horses and donkeys can graze together in the same fields (I leave you to decide which species of equus you are!).

Should a racehorse on a fine spring morning take a fancy to impregnating a donkey there will be born neither a horse nor a donkey, but a mule. A mule, however, is a sterile creature that cannot reproduce. It is an evolutionary dead end. The Bible calls them asses.


43. A national education system, divided amongst itself, can never flourish.

It is the tragic consequence of 200 years of our history that the differences between the two systems are such that transfusion alone won’t work. What we need – desperately – is that deep dialogue between all involved in the bringing up of young people that aims at such a transformation of both parts of the system that we can happily and quite naturally then come together.

44. It all comes back to the need for a national vision, something which unites all schools, and behind which most people could rally.

  • It has been the lack of such an all-embracing vision as once offered by John Milton which leaves „the body politic‟ of this country so vulnerable. As a nation we are just not sure what we are doing with children, and they are all too conscious of the ambiguous nature of our positions. “A society that has yet to discover reasons for its faith in the future is a mean place in which to bring up young people” (21st Century Learning Initiative, 2002).
  • I am not here to bring discord between the two systems of education… but I am not trying to say that there is no problem. For the damage done over the years has left deep scars in our society, and I believe that within your organisation there are the people who could move the necessary mountains to remedy this.
  • Let me explain. You are each good at your job of being a Head and I don‟t doubt that you aspire to be even better. The harder you struggle the more proud you become of your schools. But every one of us, excellent Heads or recently retired Heads have, as a matter of urgency, to lift our eyes beyond your own school boundaries, indeed above and beyond the boundaries of what we traditionally define as good schools.
  • I sort of endorse Ken Durham‟s pride in the diversity that is HMC, but only partly.
  • By hyping up our schools, I fear that we are then failing in our most important duty, indeed our moral responsibility. For together we should be giving the people of this country a lead in defining a vision for the education of all our children, rich or poor, that is stated perhaps in words similar to Milton:“I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform JUSTLY, SKILLFULLY and MAGNANIMOUSLY all the offices public and private, of peace and war.”
  • In what I am sure we all hope will be a functional democracy we must humbly share with the other 98% of head teachers who are not in HMC the need to ensure that every Tom, Dick and Harry of our pupils are able to demand of our politicians that this is what Britain is, and has to be, all about. Something that really does fit every boy and girl to grow up to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously.

I rest my case. You have to be more than head teachers. You have to be both the educational conscience of this land and its biggest movers and shakers.
Over to you…