No sooner had Heather and I had finished the writing of ‘Overschooled…’ (May 2008), than the Initiative found it helpful to produce a number of Pre-production copies of this text to help us find a publisher, and hopefully some further sponsors. Two months later, with the realisation that England would face a General Election in less than two years, I became anxious that the ideas developed in the book would reach the general public too late to influence the election. Consequently I circulated a Paper amongst the Trustees to shape our planning to intrude the ideas into the national agenda – ‘The Initiative in Changing Times’  (July 2008). In it we described our role as equipping the public to hold politicians to what the public understood was necessary:

“In considering education (an issue which in England is fraught with political undertones) we are faced with questions about the proper functioning of democracy. Democracy is about choice. It is the best process by which the protection of the rights of the individual may be balanced with what the rulers of the day see as political necessity… democracy only works when the electorate really understands the issues, and can see through simplistic proposals.”

In addition to considerations about strategy, because so much of my time had been directed towards writing the book and there was less money available from local authorities to fund training programmes, finances were getting really tight. The Initiative then made a very carefully thought-through approach to one of the largest foundations in the country for funds to expand our work.  Having had many dealings with that Foundation over the years, I found that they had now become much larger and, in an effort to become efficient, an application now had to be designed to go through their specially designed filter system, which limited initial applications to no more than 2 pages.

This made it difficult to describe the ‘bigness’ of our Proposal in ways which were not de-sensitised by this. After much careful thought we submitted ‘A multi-strand strategy to prepare home, school and community for forms of learning that “go with the grain of the brain”’ (November 2008). Given the constraints of space, we felt we had made a good job of our application, but within five days we were rejected, and were not even invited to discuss this proposal with any of their advisers. This was devastating. It sounded desperately similar to the situation Machiavelli faced 500 years before (see quotation in the ‘Introductory to the Timeline’ here). Unfortunately it was a situation that was to repeat itself several times in the next few years.

Increasingly concerned about the delay in finding a publisher, I seized the opportunity of drawing all this thinking together at a meeting of Bradford Head teachers (then administered by a private company, SERCO) in Harrogate on 20th November 2008. I had virtually the whole day to express the complete argument that was soon to be available to the public when ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’ was published. My speech was well received, with many interesting questions asked, but many observed that what I had described seemed far away from current government policy. [Bradford Head Teachers’ Conference, Text of speech]

Sitting amongst those head teachers, but unbeknown to me, was Dominic Cummings (DC) who came up immediately afterwards and introduced himself as Michael Gove’s (then Conservative shadow spokesmen for education) newly appointed political adviser. He expressed considerable interest and sympathy in what I was saying, and we agreed to meet for lunch the following day in London.  We talked long and hard, and while it became very clear that he had little factual, or historical, appreciation of how English education had got into this muddle, he was very keen to learn. We agreed to meet early in the New Year after I returned from an extensive lecture tour in Canada (Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Vancouver Island and Ottawa… my thinking was quickly deflected away from England).  I also had two meetings with Iain Duncan Smith during this time, and twice met Michael Gove and sensed that they were most interested in the argument that I set out.

Weeks later, so as to help my trustees understand where I thought this was all  going, I wrote a paper on ‘The Initiative’s Theory of Change’. Subsequently I can see that that Bradford meeting was to become a significant turning point in the work of the Initiative.

DC and I then met and had several productive, and I thought politically open, discussions in January and February 2009.  At no time was any specific suggestion made of a possible push towards Free Schools or Academies, but he did make several dismissive comments about the political process which, with hindsight, now seem extremely significant. These I recorded in my diary later in the day, entirely for my own benefit, without realising four years later they would help to provide a link in the way in which educational policy was being reshaped behind the scenes, by a very small number of people. He said, “You must understand that the average MP is not very intelligent and claims to be too busy to read very much.  They are most inflexible in their thinking and always go for the simplest solution. ’Subsidiarity’ is anathema to Cameron’s politics who associate this with the funding of the EU”. (See ‘Whitehall emails reveal the hidden costs of promoting free schools’, The Guardian, Tuesday 30th April 2011 ).

Most surprisingly, in the light of what has happened subsequently, DC went on to suggest that we should stimulate genuine cross-party discussions (which I believed at the time was what he really wanted), and that the Initiative should produce a Briefing Paper on the Design Faults at the Heart of English Education, and send this to every Member of Parliament. He then offered his help and advice, which I drew on extensively, seeing such a document as being something potentially very significant. There was to be much work involved between then and early August when separate copies of the Paper were sent direct to every MP, and every Director of Children’s Services across the country.

The Briefing Paper sandwiched its technical argument between some of the most important words ever written about education in England, by John Milton, and Wordsworth’s fears some 200 years later that English society was failing to be true to itself.

“I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, both public and private, of peace and war” (John Milton 1642)

“Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour;/ England hath need of thee; She is a Fen/ Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen, / Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, / Have forfeited their ancient English dower / Of inward happiness.” (Bower = cottage; dower = inheritance).
(William Wordsworth 1811)

Seeking to stress that this went to the heart of democracy the Paper quoted Thomas Jefferson:

“I know of no safe depository for the ultimate powers of a society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”

At a meeting of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education in April 2009, pleaded with members to stop thinking of education as a commodity, but as a preparation for democratic society,

“…because community schools can only be made better when all the community support them.”
Three months later (July) a poll revealed that more than 90% of aspiring candidates from one party expected to educate their children privately.

To question, in such a public way as this, the individual’s right of choice is to suggest, to many, that one is out of touch with modern reality – a reality which believes that the greater the choice the happier and wealthier the people will be. But education is simply not like that. It is not just about individuals, but how those individuals pull together. The more people who see themselves as strong enough to grab one of the few life jackets and swim to shore, the fewer are the oarsmen left to bring the others to safety.

If Members fail to understand this, and have so little faith in what they might administer on behalf of the country, where is their personal commitment to undertake that fundamental change that has eluded English education for so long?

In the final analysis who would trust a doctor who was not prepared to administer the same treatment to his or her own children that he or she had administered to other people’s children?”.
(Briefing Paper, p. 33)

Recognising that the Parliamentary Paper could be extremely important I had thrown myself into it with great energy, meticulously checking every section as I did it with DC.  This was finally produced and sent to all MPs in August.

As it happened, our timing turned out to be quite awful… the Briefing Paper arrived on Members’ desks the very week that the MPs expenses scandal hit the headlines… as the dust from that began to settle many weeks later Parliamentarians had no recollection of our Paper. An overview, together with the full Briefing Paper for Parliamentarians are available in the related documents below.

To resuscitate public interest in this, the Initiative published a very short Paper on September 23rd, ‘It’s Really Very Simple… the solution to England’s education problem’

Key meetings and conferences in 2009:


JAN Federation of Music Service SW Regional Conference Torquay
Atlantic College Staff Meeting Wales
Politeia Seminar London
APR ACCE Spring Seminar Bath
JUNE NPH SW Conference Somerset
Meeting with Danny Kruger, Conservative Party House of Commons
Swainswick Outdoor Learning Open Day Bath
Firefly Arts Creative Learning Education conference Edinburgh
West Wiltshire Federation Year 9 Conference Bath
JULY Meeting with the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP House of Commons
Meeting with Laura Ballantyne, Fairbridge London
Meeting with John Mulligan, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation London
AUG Meeting with Fraser Steel, BBC London
Meeting with Zulf Masters, Masters Pharmaceuticals London
Meeting with Ashley Ayre, BANES Bath
Meeting with Keith Robinson, ACCE Wiltshire Bath
Meeting with Continuum London
OCT Gloucestershire Assoc. Of Primary Heads’ Conference Somerset
GAPH Annual Conference Brockworth
NOV Atlantic College meeting with Neil Richards Wales
Keynote Education Secondary Heads’ Conference London`
DEC I.E.A. Book Launch London