To all trustees:

First Thoughts from a Safe Haven

The decision to regroup has now been taken; two new trustees have been appointed; three men who have seen us through the most tempestuous storms honourably resigned; there is a new acting Chairman, and we believe other crew members are shortly to be found.  Next week we get down to the nitty-gritty of sorting out strategy, prioritising and funding.  It is good (if painful) to have time to think, knowing that this will help us redesign the organisation and be clearer about the charts which we will need for our journey, and the strategic alliance we will need to make.

One of my first tasks – one urged on me by Richard – has been to start clearing the files of anything that is not strictly relevant to the here-and-now, or to the present.  We have seven filing cabinets full of material accumulated from past conferences, another full of papers from past training programmes and another one from Canadian affairs.  I can’t just chuck stuff away indiscriminately.  Each needs to be searched for the occasional paper that might be helpful in the future.

As I do this my mind is flooded with memories of people met and places visited in so many different parts of the world.  It is amazing how a single piece of paper can trigger almost a video tape of memories.  In retrospect I am amazed at how much has been fitted in.  But that is only a minor part of my amazement.  What has struck me most strongly has been the reality of how dramatic has been the change in the nature of the audiences during that time.  This has been creeping change, made up of a whole range of factors – perceived or subliminal – that, to start with, I hardly noticed it.  Then, about five years ago, I started to comment on how much more difficult it seemed for audiences to follow the complex arguments, to understand influences, to make historical or literary associations, and how significantly shorter the concentration span of audiences seemed to have become.

Now, looking back to the lectures I was giving in the late 1980s, I can see how the change is enormous.  It was common then, so the files show, the significant numbers of an audience in the days that followed a lecture to write to me with questions or observations – correspondence that might go on for several months.  Almost invariably the conference organisers would write a full letter of thanks afterwards – not just formal thanks but with carefully articulated observations.  Many of these help shape that first book The Child is Father of the Man.  When I wrote that book I think I had an accurate perception of my audience… and subsequently sold 10,000 copies in the years that followed.

As the new research from neurobiology started to become available in the mid 1990s so conferences often wanted half-day sessions on that alone.  So great was the interest of participants that that gave me the energy to press on even further.  Between 2000 and 2003 we did seven-day training programmes for anything between 50-200 people in Bury, Manchester, Birmingham, Tameside, Wiltshire and other places in the Home Counties.  We got a standard fee of £25,000 for each training programme.  Teachers were still seeing themselves as agents of change but around 2004 that started to change as central government began to displace the local authority as the ‘commissioner’ of courses and lectures, which from then onwards had to be geared more and more to ‘raising standards’ as defined numerically in examination league tables.

Slowly I found audiences getting restless.  “You can explain our present predicament better than anyone.  We love what you are talking about, and would dearly like to accept the challenge of becoming responsible subversives but do you realise just how boxed-in we have become.  There is little or no time or room to think things through for ourselves.  It is not just us who are suffering.  It is the children as well.  But maybe you shouldn’t even be talking to us, but rather you should be talking to the politicians who set the agenda.  You must convince them of what you are saying and then get them to restore to us the professional responsibilities that we would dearly like to have.”

So, the files show, I spent more time writing the first book Master and Apprentice; Reuniting thinking with doing.  It is a manuscript that I will forever be proud of.  The publisher put it out to just one reviewer who, while strongly urging that it should be published, expressed some concern that there was almost so much expressed in the book that it should be rewritten as three separate books.  That shook me for I had thought it was in the way in which I had spun the philosophic, scientific, educational and economic arguments together that gave the book its focus.  Looking back with hindsight the publisher jprobably understood the potential audience better than I did – the intelligent lay-readership had largely disappeared by 2005, and this was far too serious a book for a teacher-readership who by now had become preoccupied with a collection Getting the Buggars to learn French/German/History/Geography or whatever.

On the rebound I accepted the challenge of another publisher to rewrite the ideas along the line of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses – ninety-five statements of about fifty words each, followed by mini essays of 500-600 words.  When it was finally finished the publisher simply backed out because, I think, he no longer saw the ability to make much money out of the educational market.  People, he said, are no longer reading books about education; politicians have so over-blown the argument that people simply find education boring.

While the number of conferences in England was much reduced in 2007-07 my morale was kept high by the work that was starting in Canada.  In that slightly different atmosphere where Canadian teachers aspired to a more informed approach to the art of teaching (and initially to the restructuring of schools) my ‘story-telling’ approach to lecturing won me strong support.  It was with this in mind that Heather MacTaggart and myself set out to write Overschooled but Undereducated with its significant subtitle How the crisis in education is jeopardizing our Adolescents.

With a few reservations I think it is as good as several other Reviews say that it is.  But the Review in the TES was quite awful… awful because the reviewer had so little personal knowledge of what was being talked about that he felt safe (given the sort of people he thought he was writing for) in actually mocking the research, and trivialising the conclusions.  While the 17-year-old girl from Mumbai found it almost “life-changing” for too many of the keen middle-class, late-30s mothers in Larkhall want to establish an all-through 5-16 school the book is simply too long (too long? when its 230 pages summarise the ideas and opinions gleaned from a thousand other places?).

So, to me as I start on the files from Plymouth July ’97, the State of the World Forum January ’98 to Cornish Heads March ’98, I reflect ruefully on our experience of recent months in communicating with different audiences.  First it was the fiasco with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation who dismissed us, but wished us every success in “the vital work which you are doing in trying to change people’s perceptions;” to the total arrogance of the authors of the Cambridge University Primary Review reviewers in their reaction to my suggestion that they had missed out on the findings of neurobiology, to the almost instant dismissal by the Merchant Venturers of our Paper on Bristol.  And then there was the anguish of last autumn when, after several months of work, we got so little thoughtful response to the Parliamentary Briefing Paper which now, a month after the Election, just none of the ideas set out so carefully seemed to have had any effect whatsoever.  If the Headmaster of Alleyn’s School Dulwich could say “Your excellent Paper really grabbed my attention and, like those quoted, I found myself agreeing with so much of it and am frustrated that successive politicians seem not to be tackling these huge issues.  I am always amazed at how rarely they stop to assess historical and anachronistic aspects of our education system… I won’t ramble.  I did want you to know what a terrific read I found the Briefing Paper to be.”  But why was it too much for all but one Member of Parliament to respond in such detail?  What has gone wrong?  Is there something in our culture which is working against such serious thinking, or is this something to do with the biology of the human brain.  We had better understand this if the Initiative is going to do better in the future.

Three new stories over the last month may give a clue to this problem.  A fifth of teenagers leave school so illiterate and innumerate that they are incapable of dealing with the challenges of everyday life a study from Sheffield reports.  Many children are starting school having never read a story and two-thirds of teachers questioned by Oxford University said that children were less able to tell stories in writing than they were ten years ago.  Large numbers of middle-class children are being denied the opportunity to “just go out and mooch about in the garden” means that young people are failing to develop imaginative and enquiring minds, reported the Head of an independent school association.  What clue does this give us?  It is this.

Humans have been learning to use their brains ever better with each generation over millions of years.  This means that children inherit a whole set of biological predispositions that enable them to draw together various aspects of their intelligence and combine these together in ways which, and its most simple level, enables them to survive by making ever better and better decisions.  However, there is one exception of this business the brain getting better and it is this; it is what has happened to society over the past five or six generations.  This may at first seem a paradox.  But until the early 1800s people learnt in real-life, on-the-job situations.  They were essentially inclusive learners – they had to use all their faculties.  Then the pressures of industrial society required people to develop no more than a range of functional skills (such as reading, writing, calculation etc) that enabled them to fit into an industrial society – for most people this meant the dull routines of manufacturing industry.  The more inclusive skills that enabled people to make sense of things for themselves in early ages were largely ignored.  At its most extreme the fifth of children who are currently unable to cope with modern society simply would not have survived.  Nor would those middle-class children denied the opportunity of mooching around in the garden have developed the skills that would have made them flexible.  Modern society is caught in a trap.

John Abbott
9th June 2010