The following short monograph was written by Neil Richards, a Trustee of the 21st Century Learning Initiative in response to the publication of Tony Little’s book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education. As a close associate of John Abbott, he was present at Eton when John and Tony Little first discussed cooperation, in the presence of Robin Baird-Smith, a representative of Bloomsbury.  He was also privy to plans for John to work closely with Tony Little and Robin Baird-Smith in the production of a television documentary series to be entitled ‘The Brilliance of their Minds’ – which would put the Initiative’s message across to a wider public.

John had every reason to believe, as did Neil following the Eton meeting, that Tony Little was in full agreement with the argument that the Initiative was putting forward.  Indeed, Tony Little wrote a very eloquent commendation in the Initiative’s key publication ‘Battling for the Soul of Education’. Over two years of collaborative effort, with a considerable strain on John’s and Trustee’s morale, eventually culminated in the collapse of the project – largely because the main thrust of the Initiative’s arguments were being watered down by Baird-Smith in favour of a documentary about student life at Eton (also rejected by Tony Little).  While John was attempting to maintain the integrity of the Initiative’s message over this period, it would appear that an alternative publication by Bloomsbury was being planned and refined.  At no time was John aware of this until he saw Tony Little’s book in the bookshops; John’s distress at being kept so totally in the dark with regard to this publication was very apparent to those of us who know him.

Neil is also dismayed that the only book to have emerged from this unfortunate period of John’s collaboration with Tony Little is so anodyne in content.

A response to the recent publication of Tony Little’s book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education

Having read, only last year, Tony Little’s glowing endorsement of John Abbott’s paper ‘Battling for the Soul of EducationI was surprised and greatly disappointed by the publication of Tony Little’s own book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education.  Knowing how close the two men had been for more than three years, and how close they had come to the production of a possible six-part TV documentary, I am simply dismayed by this latest publication.

As a headmaster, I have long hoped that someone would identify the cancer at the heart of our British educational system, and, lured by the title, I had hoped for an incisive critique of why we are in the educational mess we are in.  Instead, effectively, all I got from Little’s book was a homily on schooling through the convex lens of the independent sector (and much more specifically, of Eton).

I was instantly reminded of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ – the publishers should now recall the book and reimburse its readership for misrepresentation.  Surely, ‘education’ has to be writ much larger, and be taken more seriously than this?

Education is so important, and has such wide-ranging consequences for society and the economy, that it cannot but be a major concern for all governments. And if our pensions are to be of any value whatsoever, we had better hope that the “potential” of the current school population is beyond our wildest dreams, never mind Age Related Expectation norms!

If educational policy in England is anything to go by, politicians are reluctant to do little other than seek that which can be measured easily as evidence of good management and rising educational standards, and examination results and test scores, it seems, are all they have.  But what a powerful role these play in inspection judgments!  I am convinced that one day Government policy will ensure that most, if not all of our students get A grades, and the shocking emptiness at the heart of education policy will at last be revealed for what it is – a hollow shell of smoke and mirrors.   I had hoped that the Abbott-Little collaboration on the proposed TV documentary would have gone some way to address the general ignorance that seems to surround the government approach to education.

So much government policy now seems to focus on development of fail-safe mechanisms and teacher supervision rather than upon actual student ‘learning’ and the creative needs of the child.  It seems ironic that when over-centralised ‘command and control’ economies have collapsed around the world, the UK’s educational approach mimics the quota-driven and centralised absurdity of Stalinism.

And as if teaching children in this age of instant gratification and limited attention span is not stressful enough, it adds layers of bureaucracy that ultimately smother creativity, initiative and innovation and helps drive many good teachers out of the profession altogether.  Why hasn’t any politician yet picked up on the cynicism, and even despair, that pervades too many of our staff rooms?

Teaching is still about children: countless unique individuals who will thrive and meet their potential only if someone cares and nurtures them through each frustratingly messy stage of their social, emotional and intellectual development.  To a good teacher there is no more worthy cause or higher pursuit.  To each parent, surely, there can be no more worthwhile goal.

I am reminded of the recent efforts of UK politicians to help British teachers ‘learn’ from the teachers of mathematics in Shanghai, without for one moment considering the social and economic environment that produced the Shanghai results, or the selectivity of the original data collection.  Such a narrow and simplistic view of education is slowly but inexorably constricting our curricula, and suffocating the teaching profession altogether.

Finland is often held up almost as a miracle of educational practice, backed up by the sort of quantitative sets of results in PISA surveys for which British Prime Ministers, among many others I am sure, would donate their upper dentures. What is almost studiously ignored by our political masters, however, is the foundational framework for Finland’s remarkably high and consistent standing in the educational super-league.   Why does Finland do so consistently well?  Surely it would be much cheaper to send our politicians to Helsinki, rather than Shanghai, to find out.

Creative people – and I firmly believe that teaching is a creative profession – need to be able to express their creativity.  The gloriously anarchic minds of children and young people fuel the energies of our teachers and challenge them on a daily basis.  It can be exhausting, but also immensely rewarding and exhilarating.  The Finnish response to this particular characteristic of education is to acknowledge the creative and intellectual talent of its teachers and allow schools a high degree of autonomy to plan and deliver curricula for their supportive communities, albeit within the framework of national standards that have been set and agreed upon with the teaching profession.  In consequence, teachers in Finland are held in the highest esteem, and are almost totally free of political interference.

In striking contrast to this, too many educational systems, and that of England in particular, stifle creativity by imposing severe limitations upon curriculum design and delivery, and maintain tight control through constant inspections and endless paperwork, driving many of our most creative teachers into other careers (and for those long-serving teachers who have experienced the steady erosion of their self-esteem and expertise, into the relief of early retirement).  I fear that there is a very serious consequence for our society if this is allowed to continue to be the established practice.

If teaching becomes a refuge rather than a vocation, or truly the default career for ‘those who can’t’, the cost to society will be incalculable.  And no curriculum framework, inspection regime or performance management system will change a thing.

We surely do not need more books from ‘experts’ suggesting that all would be well in the world if only we tweak the system. An image comes to mind of the frog calmly sitting in the water as the temperature slowly rises, no doubt reading the latest Bloomsbury guide for ‘intelligent people’.  Replace the word ‘frog’ with ‘politician’, and it will give just a hint of my own personal and professional despair.

Neil Richards, on behalf of the Trustees of The 21st Century Learning Initiative.