I had set great store by the presentation that I was to make to the Head Masters’ Conference, in October 2011, as it was still largely the public schools who were responsible for educating many of the children of the country’s high achievers and establishment figures. What these Heads might say about education could have an enormous influence on opinion-makers and I was determined to draw together various strands of the Initiative’s thinking in a way that would influence them. My starting point was the comment made at the Wingspread conferences in the late 1990s, “Knowing what we now know… we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing things in the way we used to do them.” I started my explanation by drawing on my own experience and cited the two clauses that had first caught my attention when I started my teacher training.
“In our concentration on academic performance, we lose sight of our main business of educating human personality”
TES, September 1959
“All considerations of the curriculum should consider ‘how best to use subjects for the purpose of education… rather than regarding education as the by-product of the efficient teaching of subjects’”
Sir Phillip Morris, 1952
At the same time while doing my PGCE, I was also undertaking geographic research in the Hebrides, where quite by chance I had come across a fascinating man, Lachlan Macquarie. He was born on one of the tiniest islands – Gometra – and had gone on to be Governor to New South Wales (1810 – 1821) where he managed to restore order to a totally dissolute colony. When asked in his old age how he had achieved this he had written,
“If you are born on a mere speck of land in the middle of the ocean, you quickly discover how things work, and why people do as they do. Learn that lesson well, and you are equipped to become a citizen of the world.”
‘Citizen of the world’ – those words have stuck with me ever since. Surely that is what education has to be all about?
Two years later I started teaching at Manchester Grammar School (1965), the school which, alongside Winchester, had the highest entry rates to Oxbridge, when the High Master at the time, Peter Mason, challenged the whole ethos of the school to accept that,
“the idea that talents are lent for the service of others and are not given, and that knowledge should bring humility and a sense of involvement in mankind, has to be the necessary corrective to the arrogance of meritocrats, for without this the school’s record of academic success would be indeed alarming.”
Thus it was in the light of such thinking that I attempted to interest the 300 or so head teachers in my argument. They were polite and listened carefully, but I think found it difficult to see the relevance of Neural-Darwinism to, for instance, A-Level results, or make the connection with the limitations of academics’ infatuation with Reductionism. I suspect that my sweeping indictment of the way in which education seems to have lost the idealism of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, replacing it with the need to satisfy the market economy and an ultra materialistic society, was perhaps too much to take in. Or perhaps I overloaded my argument by quoting the economic conclusion of 1960, “our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life; that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego-satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.”
Many were obviously worried when I urged them to consider their overall responsibility to articulate a vision of education that was more all-embracing, more profound, than the marketing strategies which most of them applied to ensure enough pupils, paying the right rates, to keep their schools full. It was significant that the time allocated to speakers at this conference had been reduced so as to enable Heads to spend more time perusing the stalls of publishers, software developers and school uniform providers, whose sponsorship partly funded an elaborate conference. So I concluded by going back to Milton, “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, public and private, of peace and war”.
The head teachers gave me a polite and significant round of applause, but in the hours that followed few were interested in raising issues from my speech. One gave the game away when he acknowledged that the issues were so big that he just did not know where to start. Of course I sympathised, but was extremely disappointed. Later in the afternoon, at a special Conference evensong in St Salvator’s Chapel, these men and women, so used to leading hymn singing in their school chapels, together sang with a vigour that virtually lifted the 15th Century roof from the chapel (“Oh God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come”). This level of thinking and expectation they knew all about, but so many of the issues that I raised, if thought about properly, challenged the very basis of their everyday activity.
I was in a more sober mood driving home from St Andrews than I had been two days before when I had thought that the conference might have contained significant numbers of people ready to rise to the challenge of projecting an appropriate vision of education for the country. In addition I needed to deal with the very obvious rupture amongst my trustees, and the difficult financial situation that we were facing.
There followed a quick stop in Cornwall to address a conference of local schools held at the Eden Project on ‘Green is Global’, and I then flew back to Canada. Here I gave an almost identical presentation to that at St Andrews to the 200 or so senior principals and administrators of the Vancouver School District. On this occasion I was almost overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that such people, speaking English and in so many ways representing a very English form of society, were able to resonate with these ideas.
The story I was now telling represented an enormous synthesis stretching back to the four years’ worth of work at Wingspread, and the subsequent innumerable exchange of ideas as I moved across the international schools of Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. This culminated in the intense work which started in Canada in the late 1990s, and led to the successful release of my paper ‘Adolescence: A critical evolutionary adaptation’ at the conference in Vancouver in 2004. Over the next five years, through the involvement of the Canadian Council of Learning (CCL), I had spoken in every Canadian Province from the Yukon to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, with the exception of the North West Territories (see the CCL-produced ‘The 21st Century Learning Initiative: An Introduction with John Abbott’ (**) (English/French), running time 1hr 8 minutes, and ‘Evolving Education: Learning in the 21st Century’(**), produced by CCL in conjunction with others. Link to DVD or digital files (held by martin I think)). Although I spoke with an obvious English accent, people quickly saw that I was speaking about issues that went right across the English speaking world.
Days later, back on Vancouver Island, I was introduced to the newly appointed Minster of Education, George Abbott, who immediately impressed me by most sensitively quoting key ideas in Overschooled but Undereducated, and quoted publicly how influential these had been in shaping British Columbian education policy. Two days later I gave a further lecture to a number of groups of high school students on the Gulf Islands and in other locations around Victoria, using a slightly different speech entitled ‘Overschooled but Undereducated; preparing for turbulent times’.
Over dinner George and I checked our family trees only to discover that it appeared we were not so distant relatives as it had first seemed, for we had a common ancestor who had emigrated from Devon to Saskatchewan in the 1870s… it is amazing how many personal strands could come together! At a further presentation in Victoria, to Ministry and University staff I was invited to become a Visiting Academic in Residence at the University of Victoria (UVic) the following Spring.
Back in England I had two most interesting conversations with Tony Little, Headmaster of Eton, about how the ideas we had original articulated in ‘No Small Matter’ could be used, alongside the Canadian experience, to produce a series of television documentaries aimed at raising the people of England’s expectations of what an education system based on this thinking could deliver for their children.
As I worked on the ideas emerging from British Columbia, I began to see more clearly how these could be used to strengthen the case for showing why England urgently needed to return to a more local, democratic control and responsibility for school-based education. Jeff Hopkins introduced me particularly to the writing of Michael Fullan, well known in both the UK and Canada for his work on analysing how school reform works. For several evenings I studied most carefully his paper, ‘Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform’. In the weeks leading up to Christmas we produced the report ‘Why is School Reform Difficult, and Frequently Problematic?’ (*****), probably the most significant drawing-together of the ideas made to date. It comprised six parts: (i) a re-work the paper ‘Schools in the Future’ from 12 months before; (ii) A response of British Columbia to the proposals, (iii) Attempting to apply the Initiative’s ideas to the resolution of issues relating to the Big Society in the UK, (iv) A Complete and Generous Education… creating big Society (as per Oliver Letwin), (v) An English Response (August – October 2011) and (vi) The International Evaluation of Successful Change Processes.
Consequently as 2011 gave way to 2012 we began to construct a Script for a possible television series. The documentary (initially called ‘The Brilliance of Their Minds’) drew very heavily on the kind of presentation so successfully developed 35 years before by Bronowski in ‘The Ascent of Man’ (see folder 1). “Too often in the past,” we wrote “education reform has been more concerned with addressing the obvious symptoms of a problem, rather than addressing the cause of the problem itself. Now in the early 21st century the present arrangements are so overlaid by layer upon layer of ‘quick fix’ solutions that to cut through to the underlying causes requires a level of knowledge and background most people simply just do not have. If ever it was true that a people who forget their history simply live to make the same mistakes all over again, it is now. The situation is serious.
Over the past decade several English speaking countries, have focused their reforming strategies on ‘breaking down’ the old structural arrangements in the hope that this shakeup will induce reform right across vast systems. The alternative is to concentrate on the minutiae of improving the personal motivation of individuals at all levels so as to ‘build up’ a widespread sense of community ownership, to create the energy for continuous improvement.” Michael Fullan had noted that the larger the unit to be reformed, the more difficult it is to invest in a ‘building up’ strategy, yet it is only by investing in the intrinsic motivation of individuals in each community that entire systems develop the capacity for continuous development. “Most regrettably England and the United States have progressively removed the control of education from local communities,” we said in the text, “thereby directly being answerable to large scale national directives, applying the ‘break down’ model of development.
Such a documentary would aim to help the English find a way out of the ever deeper hole they have dug, by concluding with a study of the Canadian province of British Columbia. This province has progressively reinforced local community ownership as a way of reaching standards of achievement already well in advance of the English and United States systems. With only 4.5 million people – one twelfth of the population of the United Kingdom but scattered over the land area three times that size – British Columbia has no difficulty in finding sufficient people to stand as trustees of the 60 school districts, each administered with apparently greater efficiency than England can do with its ever more centralised government.
In placing its faith in local decision-making (see the Initiative’s proposal to Oliver Letwin, Minister without Portfolio in the Cabinet of August 2011) British Columbia is far better able to innovate than is possible in more congested England, where economies of scale too often prove to be a dangerous illusion. 20 years before the English established a tripartite system of secondary schooling in 1944, British Columbia had already started to adopt John Dewey’s belief that ‘education is life, not a mere preparation for life’.”
We concluded that, “England could also develop the brilliance of its children’s minds if it heeded the message of this programme and started to build the system up from the bottom by investing in the intrinsic motivation of whole communities, rather than being constrained by its draconian ‘command and control’ methodologies.
In a world tantalised by endless sound bites, and ill-prepared to read lengthy printed text, it seems that people look to television to give them quick, straight forward explanations. While a television documentary is the most appropriate of the present media to deal with this issue it has always to be remembered that if the audience’s attention is lost for even a couple of minutes they can simply turn it off… long before the main point has been concluded. The delivery of such material as this has always to be fascinating, fun and mentally challenging… which is itself a challenge when we are aiming to change the very way in which people look at an old problem but with new insights.”
The events of the past 12 months will be best enumerated in separate points. These will be published as and when each issue can effectively be described. These are being reported on and summarised at regular intervals through the blogs and relevant postings made on the Responsible Subversives website – see www.ResponsibleSubversives.org
The following are a examples of a few of the lectures John was giving in 2011: