Conference and Common Room

The plane took from Helsinki flying low over the Finnish archipelago.

“What’s your line?” said the self-assured businessman settling himself down comfortably in seat next to me.

“I am a Headmaster. I have just been talking at an international conference on the nature of schools for the 2lst century. How you prepare young people to deal creatively with change, to manage their own learning as a lifetime skill. How you create schools which successfully encourage innovation and enterprise. That sort of thing.”

“Good gracious, second only to reforming World Council of Churches that must be the most difficult thing in the world.” He thought for a moment. “Why do you do this?”

As the Baltic spread out beneath us on a brilliant early autumn afternoon I was encouraged to be expansive. I spoke about teaching Geography at MGS and leading expeditions to study the nomads in the mountains of Iran. Of how, with many others in the early 70s, I had left the Independent sector because we believed that the new comprehensive schools presented a real opportunity to create education of quality for all. I spoke of the ten years I had spent as Headmaster of a well established grammar school being reorganised as a comprehensive, and all the stresses involved in this. Of how I had tried to get commercial sponsorship to install what would have been the first fully computerised classroom in the United Kingdom, but was rebuffed, time and again, because ‘private sponsorship is for private schools; you as a state school should be funded by Government, not us’… and that, less than ten years ago.

The light dawns
I described my road to Damascus when the Carnegie Foundation of the United States offered to show me what they said was the most outstanding High School in the Eastern Seaboard; a school with some of the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test points in the whole of the States. It was a High School of 1,100 fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds, of all abilities.

After two days I was totally amazed. I had never met such a fine collection of young people, every one of them apparently confident, enthusiastic, sensitive and well able to manage the future. I asked the Principal how this had been achieved. He grinned. “This township has a very mission statement. We believe in functional literacy for all young people… that is the ability to feel comfortable with all the changes of a modern society. That depends upon every young person developing the skill to manage their own learning throughout a lifetime. And that,” he concluded with a flourish, “requires the highest possible skills in thinking, communicating, collaborating and decision making.”

That hit me between the eyes. Was it not almost the mirror image of many traditional English classrooms? Rote learning, yes – but is that thinking? Do we really encourage communication skills – other than those silent ones committed to paper? Aren’t we afraid of collaboration – in fact that’s cheating isn’t it? And decision making? We don’t let many teachers do that, let alone pupils.

“But those are just the skills I’m looking for in my employees,” cried my companion, upsetting the stewardess in his excitement. “That’s just what industry has been trying to tell schools. Instead of listening you perpetuate a set of working practices which are counter-productive of those very skills needed in
all forms of employment.

“You teachers think life is about working alone, unhurriedly, on some academic research in an ivory tower far removed from the telephone, daily crisis and the need to consult with other people. You don’t understand about working with ambiguity, nor do you accept the importance of rule-of-thumb calculations, or inspired intuitive guesswork. This is the real world, these are real issues. What are you going to do about that?”

Addressing the CBI
I pulled on some notes I was making for a speech. In six weeks’ time I have been asked to address The Annual Conference of the CBI; I have fifteen minutes of prime time to talk to the 1500 delegates. It is going out on BBC Television as well.”

“Good lord,” he cried for the third time and signalled for further whiskies for both of us. “Where the deuce will you start?” Where indeed! His words re-echoed in my ears as I stood at the podium in Glasgow and faced the bright lights of the television cameras and the collective face of British industry.

“Let me tell you a story,” I began. “Long ago, in 1927, Mercedes Benz produced 1700 cars. With amazing long-term vision the Directors called for a report on the company’s growth potential over the next 50 years. Eventually the report came back. By 1977 it said, technological change could make possible the production of40,000 cars a year. The Directors were appalled at the report which they saw as being naïve. How could schools ever train 40,000 chauffeurs a year!”

There was ripple of laughter. They liked that; the atmosphere relaxed, and so did I. “The British experience of living with change has not been happy. Too often – for reasons of fear, complacency, blind arrogance – we have seen change as threat, not an opportunity.

“We-have dilly- dallied… only to find that others have moved faster… our smokestacks have fallen, our Shipyards have become silent.

“We need young people who have learnt to live with change – people with confidence in their own judgement and competent within a range of intellectual, social and practical skills; with imagination, enterprise, able to work in teams, but able also to accept individual responsibility – people who can live with ambiguity.

“We English, I fear, are still highly ambivalent in our attitudes towards education – we are not really sure that it is important… at best we may be keen on the education of our own children, but not unduly concerned about the education of other people’s children. And that is not only morally indefensible, it makes extraordinarily bad economic sense. Brain power is at a premium and flexibility based on education is an essential requirement to meet the challenge of change.” They really liked that.

The Letchworth Proiect
I told them of the work of Education 2000, and the Project in Letchworth which is drawing together best practices from a range of initiatives and nurturing this in such a way as to create a vision of the ‘Schools of the Future”. How staff were spending 10% of their time for three years or more in a variety of retraining programmes, all aimed bringing about a fundamental change in pedagogic practice – the empowerment of young people to manage their own learning, with the teacher as the facilitator, not the instructor. How it was hoped that up to half the teachers in each school would have the opportunity every three years to experience the working practices of industry and commerce. I spoke of the introduction of 500 computers, at least one to every seven pupils, sufficient to give open access whenever needed, and of spending more money on staff training than on the technology itself. That really got their attention.

“The school as a role model of change pupils living with successful innovation. It may sound radical but you know that we have consistently under-valued the powerful curricular thinking of recent years – we, like so many pupils, have been paralysed by a sense of Failure. We look backwards, not forwards.”

The applause was sufficient to reassure me that I had hit the target. But would they understand? Would they accept the challenge? “Businessmen must sit down with teacher, trade unionist with industrialist; pensioner and create a vision and then implement it in a thousand or more communities.”

Would they now understand that whatever reforms Government proposed “the eventual impact of such changes would be much reduced unless we all – as a nation of caring, concerned, essentially involved individuals – wake up to the reality that the education of all our young people is the responsibility of every one of us.” Perhaps… Let’s see.

Where next?
A score of hopeful communities subsequently approached the Trust asking to be considered as locations for a second project. The Trust was particularly concerned to try out such techniques in deprived urban areas, preferably in the North. Eventually, Bury, Calderdale and the inner city areas of Leeds and Coventry have been selected for Feasibility Studies.

Two hundred or more visitors have joined the Secretary of State and numerous Politicians to walk through the Letchworth schools. “It was very impressive indeed,” said Kenneth Baker.

“The atmosphere of ‘busyness’ and concentration among the 11 and 12 year-olds in this maintained school was remarkable, and was not attributable to our visit – the Project attracts many visitors, and was clear that we were scarcely noticed,” said a visitor from an Independent school. “We want to get on with it.
We don’t want to be sat in a classroom and be told what to do, and what to think… we want to do it at our own rate and don’t want to stop just because the bell rings the end of the lesson. We can carry on by ourselves,” said a 12 year-old pupil.

The aspen leaves were already turning gold when I flew into the town of that name in the mountains of Colorado early in October for a continuation of the
Helsinki Conference of the previous year. What a place for a vision – to dream dreams! But ten and a half thousand feet, lack of oxygen inhibited violent movement and increased the potency of alcohol threefold! Nearly 300 delegates came from 15 developed countries. The first presentation of the day started at 7am, the last one finished after 10pm, the visions were infused with intellect, not scenery!

Themes quickly became apparent. The present system of schooling has largely outlived the society which created it – a society where change was steady and
evolutionary and where social institutions were reasonably stable; change has now become discontinuous and revolutionary. (My friend from the Helsinki flight would have liked that!) Schools have been based on the perpetuation of academic and intellectual objectives and have required conformity to a system that accepts that the past is the key to the future; they are dominated by bureaucratic and conservative thinking. Schools have traditionally made an implicit contract with parents to educate their children (‘in loco parentis’); with the declining role of the family and the growth of the all-pervasive influence of ‘youth culture’, new contracts directly between the school and the pupils need to be developed. (Shades of Charles Handy with the child as the client, not the product.)

Within the West the school system could afford, until recently, to be inefficient. (Very few of the leaders of top American Corporations were in the top 25% of their graduating class – they came through despite the system. Interesting. Blast, why did I not ask the CBI delegates ‘to put up their hands if they had not been to University or Polytechnic? That would have been fascinating indeed.) Such inefficiency could not continue. The developing world – the Pacific Ring – would see to that. Of course America – or the United Kingdom – could have full employment in the future… at wages currently paid in Korea; but that country, and others, now recognise that brain-power is indeed at a premium; that flexibility based on education is the essential requirement to meet the challenge of change.

No narrow technological solution was confidence to live with ‘Change and multiple alternatives, to develop as flexible and adaptive learners, they also need the ability to ‘decode’ the hidden assumptions contained within the media, and the ability to understand economic, social and cultural systems so as to promote a humane society. They need to follow such inter-disciplinary studies to produce the realisations that “Everything is connected to everything”, “All solutions have side and that “We need never do merely one thing”.

A parable
I gave a real-life British parable. Dean Clough in Halifax was once the world’s largest carpet mill; it’s one and a quarter million feet of near perfect Victorian architecture were built to last until Doomsday. In its heyday it employed some 5,000 people. On each of its massive floors hundreds of workers did identical jobs, each interdependent with the machine; the whole operation was masterminded by a small task force of engineers and through its management the Crossley family grew rich. To work in such a mill young people needed to accept discipline, perform a variety of jobs some quite complex – entirely according to the rule book, be loyal to the company – conformity if you like. For such a world the concept that ‘teacher knows best’ was surely appropriate, –
dependence upon the person in charge, the acceptance of the status quo. But technology changed, and unfortunately the Mill didn’t. All 5,000 employees
were laid off. It’s demolition seemed inevitable. But that did not happen.

Instead the floors were divided up to suit the needs of over 200 smaller, and mainly young, commercial organisations. Two and a half thousand people now occupy more than 70% of the Mill. They are performing an amazing range of jobs, their skill requirements are constantly shifting.

The skills being practiced now in the Mill call for a very different kind of schooling; where once the Mill required large numbers of disciplined operatives it now requires people to start with higher-order basic skills and sufficient confidence in themselves to be able to adapt to new situations and new tasks.
Company workforces may be shrinking, but when vacancies exist they require far higher levels of education than previously.

“I can’t understand you Brits,” said one eminent American educationalist, “At a time when you are busy de-regulating your society you are heavily regulating your schools. We have learnt the hard way. If you produce rulebooks of three or four hundred pages you create clock watchers. If you want teachers who can respond to the individual needs of a particular child you need professionals with skills that cannot be enshrined in a code”. “I am bemused,” said a Canadian, “I am sure you English love your children, but why don’t you enjoy them?

Why are you so age-segregated? Why are you so willing to entrust the education of your children to others, frequently losing Contact in adolescence which is so to recapture?” Why, indeed… answers, please, on a postcard!

Back to Letchworth
Back in England the winter sun is setting over Letchworth. “That three day placement with the engineering company I did last week was fascinating, but it
really shook me up,” said a History teacher. “You know the young employees that that company was looking for – people with energy, imagination inventiveness, confidence to speak up for themselves were the youngsters who, for more than 30 years now, I’ve been busy ‘cutting clown to size’. To me they’ve been a ‘pain in the butt”, but those are the ones who are going to excel; maybe those that survived my lessons learnt how to tolerate, or was it ignore, me! That was not the lesson I thought I was leaching! I wish this had happened to me back in the 1950s.”

“I wish it had too,” I could hear my friend from Helsinki saying “but, even now, will you really be able to change things? Can all you teachers think again
about the way you have been doing things for generations, and actually incorporate within schools those working practices which non-academics most appropriate to deal with a whole host of everyday situations? Will teachers ever incorporate and validate inspired, intuitive guesswork, rule-of-thumb techniques and collaborative problem-solving techniques which we mere shopkeepers and manufacturers know are the skills which we are dependent upon to stay afloat?”

“Yes,” I want to reply, “not only can we, but we actually want to. We will combine the best of our liberal humanistic tradition with a better understanding of the skills which enable young people to be creative”. I want to go further, and be truly bullish and say “once we do so, British education will be unstoppable; our young people will be equipped to lead change, rather than to merely react to it – and lead it in ways which are which are imaginative, creative and equitable”.

Will you join me, and George Bernard Shaw and “Dream what could be… and ask, ‘Why not?’”