In late 2011 when working in Vancouver, I was introduced to George Abbott, then Minister of Education for British Columbia. After a lively evening of discussion about education in British Columbia, we started to explore the possibility of our being related. it quickly transpired that there was a very strong probability that we were third or fourth cousins going back to the arrival in Saskatchewan of his great-great-grandfather who it seems (though we have never gone far enough to identify birth certificates) was the cousin of one of my fathers ancestors.

Over the next twelve months I and ‘Cousin George’ made a number of public appearances, the relationship between us fascinated the Canadian audience. One of these appearances is recorded on film and the way in which I was able to use his experience in British Columbia with Locally Elected School Boards to show the strength of community participation, was very useful in England. A leadership struggle for the control of the BC Liberal Party left George in second place and within six months he effectively retired from politics, just at the point at  which he and I were about to write a book aimed at reshaping and strengthening Canadian education.

ADVICE NEEDED on dealing with issues about school governance involving BC and England

On 2012-07-18, at 6:50 AM, John  wrote:


Dear George,


It is time that I update you and selected others in BC on how my thinking on issues of school governance may shape the proposed TV documentary which, in its turn, may put pressure for policy change on a significant scale.  This means that this message will need careful thought…so be warned!  And my apologies for sending you so much stuff, but as you will see this is important


My concern about a number of issues came to a head last week as I listened to the annual, prestigious, Reith Lecture on BBC radio (Reith was the founding  father of the BBC and set a very high moral tone for public broadcasting) given my an eminent, relatively young historian …. but a man who is rapidly identifying himself with the present Goverments’ educational policies.    In the midst of what was otherwise a very balanced description of the devastating impact of the collapse of social capital, he suddenly took a swoop at state education as being the cause of all our problems, and urged that ,as soon as possible, as many schools as possible should be prized away from local government control, and be run by private organisations.  As a Feffersonian/john Dewey/Miltonian democrat who is convinced that unless children in their school years come to respect, and believe in, the proper functioning of a democratic society, all forms of civilised society will simply fall apart.   To my horror I seemed to be the only one who saw it like this….the Reith lecturer is now seen as the man of the future.


Realising that as far as the English are concerned the tension between private and state education is the “elephant in the room” which a serious TV documentary just can’t ignore, I thought I should try and master my argument.  As a first attempt I decided to share my thinking with two of my trustees, one (Tom) very bright, intelligent, balanced but still very much part of upper crust society and the other (John) liking to think of himself as being part of that clique, but never able to grasp the full picture. I sent off the first email to the two of them on July 11th.(attached).  It stirred up something of a hornets’ nest….Tom politely urging me not to make unnecessary enemies, and John telling me to keep out of commentating on political affairs which he deemed to be none of my concern (see his email  below of July 12th).


Recognising that I would just have to become sufficiently skilled in steering through this minefield (and feeling somewhat insulted by John’s message), I set out that night to simplify, and clarify, what are the main points in my argument.  Some five hours later I had sort-of done it, not over polished but virtually complete.  Nervously I sent it off the following morning (my email of 13th July below) with little tidying up, and wondered what would happen.  I knew that I was ignoring the advice to keep out of contentious areas, and was ploughing straight into “the eye of the storm” (which I have always wanted to believe is the safest place to be).


Now as you read this through YOU MUST ADVISE as to whether I am correct in ascribing to BC and the operation of your School Boards the credit for providing the signpost I describe TO the future.


Within 12 hours of receiving this Tom phoned me to say he thought this was the clearest exposition of the issues he had ever heard from anyone and said that with such an argument Tony Little and I would be well able to go with confidence into “eye of the storm” in the forthcoming Documentary/Book.   I was well pleased, but significantly (I think) I have not heard from john.  I have however had a meeting with the people working on the documentary brief and shared this with them, and they saw this as the best summary possible for structuring the documentary.



Which of course is vastly encouraging BUT I must now turn this over to you, George, for your candid assessment of how well BC can substantiate all the claims I am making on your behalf.   Please give yourself the necessary time to think this through, as we have to get this initial brief right.   I have two critical meetings in mid August, one with Tony Little  and the other with the documentary people, and would value your advice in advance of that.


I think I should also share these thoughts with Jeff on Salt Spring, and later with Rod.


Hope you are well and that we will be able to meet shortly




From: Abbott, George 

Sent: 11 August 2012 05:57
To: The 21st Century Learning Initiative 

Hi again John:

A few more thoughts about the British education debate, and what the BC experience might contribute to it:


First, neither central nor local governments hold any monopoly on wisdom and common sense.  Both levels can add value to the construction and delivery of public policy and programs.  Ideally, the inevitable tension between central and local levels will be creative and constructive.  To attract capable local leadership, boards will need to have sufficient authority to make important decisions including, hopefully infrequently, poor decisions.


Striking the right balance between local and central powers is critical.  While not perfect, BC at least approximates an appropriate balance.


Second, in BC the provincial government can provide broad leadership through initiatives like the BC Education Plan. Using a combination of financial incentives, moral suasion and regulation, the Province can advance early childhood or experiential learning initiatives.  Local  boards are expected to embrace such initiatives, but to also adapt them to local circumstances.


Third, in undertaking such initiatives, the Province is often catching up to, rather than pulling forward, local SDs.  There are many examples of local leadership.  Revelstoke SD has been remarkable on early childhood education for over a decade.  This has resulted in consistently high FSA scores, minimal behavioral issues and 100% graduation rates.  Without Revelstoke’s leadership, the province would be much more tentative in this area.


Fort Nelson SD have been the leaders on Aboriginal education (and early learning), culminating in a historic 100% Aboriginal graduation rate last year.  Again this demonstrated success greatly strengthens the Province’s attempts to instill best practices across the jurisdiction.


Our friend Jeff Hopkins and the Gulf Islands SD have been acknowledged leaders on personalized learning.  In a highly centralized system such diversity and innovation would not be possible and the central government, in turn, would not have this demonstrated success to build on.


In the area of experiential learning, there are between 15 to 20 SDs that have created innovative partnerships with the post-secondary and private sectors–without preliminary prodding from the Province.  With the latter now embracing a more intensive trades training framework,  the early local initiatives will provide a quicker and more effective transition.


Many SDs have done many things well.  Central government’s role is to make that best practices become general practices.


Four, I think BC benefits from the presence of both public and private schools.  Choice, competition, diversity and innovation are all part of this mix.  That being said, government has the paramount responsibility to ensure that every child has access to a quality education regardless of their social and economic circumstances.  We recognize the legitimacy of the independent schools with 50% funding, then use the broader funding formula to recognize need across and within SDs.


Is the formula perfect?  No but it’s a pretty good balance from a democratic perspective.


Just as local and central governments can learn from one another, so too can the public and private school sectors learn and benefit from their respective experiences.

On an entirely different note, I’ll almost certainly be advising the Premier late this month that I won’t be seeking re-election in 2013.  When asked by the media about my plans, I’ll talk of reading, researching, writing and perhaps some teaching in public policy, especially in Education and Health.


My question to you: should I reference the collaborative work we are planning and/or a future book on education?


When I’m relieved of cabinet duties, I look forward to sitting down with educational leaders like  Jeff Hopkins to discuss what we earlier identified as potential chapters/ topic areas like:

-early learning

-social/emotional learning

-common interventions for all learners

-parent as teacher

-special needs in the classroom

-experiential learning

-impact of physical activity on learning -community in school and classroom


I’d welcome as always your thoughts on any of the above.


All the best,