Catching our breath. Living in England but increasingly involved in Canada, and a continuing participation in ideas percolating through other countries, the British General Election of May 2010 caused the Initiative and myself to catch our collective breaths, and in the process fearing we could be gasping our last.


1. 2010 opened on a deceptively optimistic note.

Having visited British Columbia in late January, I was invited back at very short notice by then Minister of Education, Margaret MacDiarmid, to address the 400 staff of the Education Department.  This turned out to be an extremely important meeting for the Province and initiated some Province-wide policies based on those discussions. The Initiative subsequently produced ‘Schools in the Future: What has to change and why’ (May 2010 ****). This led the BC Teachers’ Federation to publish ‘The Ministry’s 21st Century Obsession’, in which they helpfully stressed my call for increased student engagement through personalised hands-on learning, guided, rather than directed, by teachers. This was good, for what the Initiative was arguing for was now being given real substance.

In March the Initiative was invited to develop a proposal to involve a significant private sponsor, the Merchant Venturers of Bristol (the descendent of the early Trade Guild responsible for opening up transatlantic trade, especially in slaves and sugar), in what could become a ten-year programme. This would build upon work started by Bristol University into the problems of transfer between schools in the city. ‘The Route Map’(***) is well worth careful study, outlining a programme to put the ideas of the Initiative into practice, especially issues of transition between primary and secondary education, working collaboratively across Bristol. To our dismay this Proposal was rejected almost immediately by the Merchant Venturers and by a significant local sponsor, on the basis that each had already pledged possible funds to support Michael Gove and the Conservative Party’s determination, should they be returned, to bring about change by the introduction of Free Schools. Storm clouds were beginning to gather.

2. On May 7th the results of the General Election were declared and it was several days before the Coalition Government was actually formed.

Then came the shock, for very shortly the Coalition seemed poised to destroy the sense of local democratic involvement so necessary to hold together the community-school partnership which the Initiative had been struggling to build. In almost every instance this seemed to be the opposite of the ten Action Points proposed in the Parliamentary Briefing Paper of the previous year. No sooner were the results announced, however, than three of our trustees resigned on the basis that as they thought there was a strong Conservative component in the Coalition who would have studied the Briefing Paper, all the Initiative would have to do would be to work closely with the emerging central government policy. That left six trustees and two new trustees with commercial experience were appointed, but, given the events that were starting to unfold, this was a bad time to have had such a change in the Initiative’s management.

Government was far from being the supportive body some had expected could work with proposals in the Briefing Paper, and the Initiative and all those of us involved with it found that they were facing a set of extraordinary challenges.   It is worth visiting again the comments on totalitarianism made a few months later by Sir Peter Newsam (see ‘Background’).

The most obvious instance of this was the speed with which government sought to repeal all the arrangements that had been made since 2005 (?) to virtually rebuild all the secondary schools in the country – the ‘building schools for the future’ (BSF) strategy.  Essentially this was a 15 year programme divided into five phases of which only the first was actually being implemented on the ground while extensive work had started on preparation for phase 2 and 3, and the local education authorities for the last phases knew that they would have to wait for between 8 and 10 years before they could start working on this. I had constantly urged that far greater attention should be given to real considerations about how teenagers learn, before anymore schools were designed to fit an out dated learning model… (see Tameside presentation of ‘The Rain Forest’ model). The avowed purpose of these changes was to reclaim monies earlier promised to BSF to fund the further extension of the Academies programme, and the Free Schools. These changes were forced through before the summer recess, and caused utter devastation and dismay to those authorities who had been working to prepare for the new opportunities.

Three Documents prepared for the Initiative’s trustees describe this struggle of ideas:  ‘Stormy Weather’ (May 13th), ‘Seeking a Safe Haven’ (20th May) and ‘Thoughts from a Safe Haven’ (15th June)(all **). The final evaporation of any pretence that we were entering a world of common sense is encapsulated in the simplistic to the point of ridiculous review of Overschooled but Undereducated in the TES (14th June) entitled ‘A Premise that Wanders into Nomad’s Land’ (*).  Compare both the style and the thought involved in that review in the same journal 10 years before of ‘The Child is Father of the Man’.

Everyone, especially the new trustees, found it difficult to come to terms with this dramatic shift in political leadership, and arguably the most uncertain time for English education in more than 50 years. According to David Priestland Britain’s education system is being tested to destruction by a dated management dogma driving Gove’s education reforms, and not evidence of what works. Ministers are ideologues, products of the late 1970s and 80s when neo-liberalism appeared fresh and exciting, and it is this outdated dogma that is creating the “weirdly dysfunctional British education” system (both Left and Right seem to be enamoured of this) so that what Priestland was arguing for 2 ½ years later (2013), was more than a change of government, “we need”, he urged, “an intellectual revolution”.  The Coalition Government’s first moves on their educational agenda had been about governance and the centralisation of more control on schools dependent on central government through the proposals for more Academies and a series of “free” schools.

The Initiative has a long memory and recalls the findings of the RAND Organisation in the US in the mid-1990s; “Research that challenges the workings of the system is ignored or ridiculed, and that which can be used to strengthen the power and efficiency of the system is incorporated accordingly”. The Trustees then published (July 2010) a strategic plan as a result of a SWOT analysis (**), that led to ‘What the Initiative is all About’.

3. Recognising the extremely difficult financial situation that was now facing us…

…I advocated that, as a temporary expedient to conserve our limited funds, we should relinquish our seven-room office in Argyle Street, and offered to house the key components of the Initiative’s office in two rooms in our own home, together with additional storage space. Almost wholly accepting the trustees’ suggestion that we could ‘ditch’ vast quantities of our paperwork, we completed this move in mid-August 2010, leading to the rubbishing of probably some 2-3 tonnes of documents. In the process of doing this I made a careful log of everything that we destroyed, and with the hindsight of a couple of years, I think we retained 90% of the important pieces.

In addition to moving into new accommodation, I had to replace my full-time personal assistant, and appointed Jim Robinson on a 3/10 basis. To an extent all this felt unreal. My workload continued to expand, and it seemed that our influence in all places other than English state education was continuously growing. In mid-September, I was asked to address the Academic Committee of the Head Masters’ Conference (HMC) on the basis of what had earlier been said in the Parliamentary Briefing Paper – by which stage this seemed largely irrelevant – but most significantly, it was to lead to an invitation to address the Annual Conference of HMC meeting in St Andrews in October of the following year.  Then Jeff Hopkins, Superintendent of the Gulf Islands School District in British Columbia, joined me in making a joint presentation to the students of Atlantic College, at which we launched the concept of ‘U-Start’ (see prospectus **). Desperately coming to terms with the limitation placed on our work in England it was with a sense of great relief that I found myself addressing a two-day conference of the Richmond School District (Vancouver) amidst all the trappings of Whistler, the exclusive Canadian skiing resort.

4. Despite this peppering of positive moments, the overwhelming sense during Autumn 2010 was a fear for the long term existence of the Initiative – our third near-death experience.

Concern over finances reached new intensity but the Initiative, and its Trustees, lacked obvious solutions. The wider political landscape shaped by the Coalition’s initial education moves suggested a future exactly counter to what the Initiative hoped.

It was during Jeff Hopkins’ September (2010) visit that an initial conversation between Jeff and David Abbott, the Initiative’s website manager, introduced the Initiative to the possibility of creating  some animated cartoon documentaries, loosely based on the powerful American example of “The Story of Stuff”. While not certain about the detail, or the nature of social networking,  the opportunity for such dynamic and direct communication of complex ideas was an inspiration, and quickly caught some of the trustees’ imaginations. Such was the potential for the Animations to answer the ongoing need for a publicity and fundraising boost that in December it was eventually agreed to commission ‘A-Productions’ of Bristol to produce the Initiative’s first animation, to be called ‘Born to Learn’. Realising that the production of the animation would require significant changes to our way of working, we immediately registered the domain name Not everyone was happy about this, as this diverted a significant chunk of our rapidly diminishing resources, but as this came together in the New Year, we received a timely boost when the actor Damian Lewis (of Band of Brothers and Homeland fame) agreed to provide the narration.

I was beginning to rebuild my confidence that the Initiative could find a well-structured way forward. The difficulty of both understanding and working with new government policies were exemplified, however, when over the turn of the year I was given an introduction to Rachel Wolfe, the 25 year-old former internee with Michael Gove, by then responsible for running the New Schools Network, and enticing as many schools as possible to become either Free Schools or Academies. Armed with Diane Ravitch’s book ‘The Death and Life of the great American High School’ (see my review), I attempted to put to her that the research on the Charter Schools in the United States suggested that whatever improvements these might have brought about, they were almost exactly balanced by the damage they wrought on the rest of the system. Her only response was, “Oh that turncoat.” I couldn’t resist saying that Winston Churchill had once crossed the floor of the House of Commons on principle. She remained silent (see ‘Turncoat? The Life and Death of School Systems’, ****).

5. I was excited with the progress being made with the Born to Learn animation, and with the several conversations I had had with Tony Little, the Headmaster of Eton College, who had read Overschooled but Undereducated. He offered his help to develop these ideas and we started to plan what became known as ‘the Eton Conversations’… a proposal for a series of high level discussions based on the Initiative’s ideas.

Just before leaving for British Columbia in February, I accepted the recommendation that work should start on a second animation so that this would be ready to release some three or four months after the first one. Before leaving on a three-week tour of Western Canada I wrote to the Trustees expressing my increasing confidence but saying that the management of all this depended critically on three things:

  1. keeping our electronic shop window fresh and alive,
  2. maintaining a good administrative control of the whole operation, and
  3. keeping me ‘out on the hustings’ looking keen, enthusiastic and positive.

To achieve all this, I suggested that between them the Trustees appeared to have over 50 possible contacts who, if properly approached, a quarter of which might make a significant financial contribution, totalling perhaps £100,000. Such donations would only be made if I could make a personal presentation to each of these and explain the delicate balance between what the Initiative was arguing for, and what current politicians thought was desirable. I left the trustees to consider this issue while I was away, as to keep me ‘on the road, and out on the hustings’ might mean that I would clock up expenses of £1,500 a month, or £9,000 over six months. Without this financial assurance I could not commit myself to such a level of fundraising as well as doing everything else.

To my surprise, and to my utter dismay, I returned in early March to find that some trustees had on their own initiative taken preliminary soundings of these contacts. They had then concluded that there would be no point in my approaching any of these people as, on the basis of the conversations they had held, it was highly unlikely that anyone would support us. Frankly I was devastated and recognised that unless we dug ourselves out of this situation the Initiative was facing closure within a very short time. Challenging the trustees to rethink this conclusion I wrote a paper, ‘Do we Believe in Ourselves’ and followed this up with a ‘Memo to All Trustees’ on 14th April (***).

6. Doing my best to ride above the financial worries in early May I wrote a possible statement of intent for those people likely to join the Eton Conversations, and with Tony Little’s agreement called this Paper, ‘No Small Matter’  (*****).

In the 18 months that had elapsed this paper has only been slightly modified (largely to reflect a shift away from a series of Conversations towards the construction of a Documentary programme for television). It clearly and succinctly explained the nature of the dilemma facing British society and the possible role of education in providing a solution. It immediately caught the interest and attention of all those who read it, including the Bishop of Oxford, the Chairman of the Church of England Education Commission.

7. Linking the philosophic ideas of No Small Matter to the need for finance to ensure our society we made a further application to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, entitled ‘Nearly There But Not Quite’ (****).

Advised that on this occasion we could use up to four pages in our submission, rather than two as before, this application gave an honest appraisal of the Initiative’s expectations for education and the conflict with present education policy. Invited to London to discuss this in detail (see notes prepared for meeting as well as the application) we were then invited on several occasions to produce supplementary material over a 2 month period. When this was taken to their committee it was eventually rejected on the basis that, although they liked the ideas they did not think we were sufficiently strong enough to bring these about, and therefore the whole approach was rejected.  For a second time we received nothing.

8. Throughout June and July we were struggling to decipher the political thinking in the United Kingdom, particularly the conflict between the Prime Minister’s advocating a Big Society and Michael Gove’s determination to separate the control of schools form any form of local democratic base.

I struggled to express this for the benefit of the Trustees in a Paper of June 2011 that would show how a demonstration of decentralisation and real functional localism could actually work (‘Deciphering the Political Thinking in the UK’, ***). This led on the 20th June to a formal submission of ‘A Proposal Based on the Revitalisation of Civil Society’ (****).

9. I was advised that the most significant person to discuss this with was Oliver Letwin, the Minister without Portfolio in the Cabinet, responsible for advising David Cameron on future Conservative Party policy.

I was then advised that if I were to meet him I had to set it all out in nominally no more than three sides.  Reaching almost screaming point, I tried to visualise how to reduce all the thinking of the previous six months into a document which, while doing justice to what we were talking about, would press enough current ‘hot buttons’ to capture his imagination. By the end of July we sent him ‘A Complete and Generous Education: Creating Big Society’ (****). I and one of the trustees met with him at his constituency office on 23rd September. It was a most insubstantial meeting; almost as if he hadn’t read the paper.  He started the conversation by saying how wonderful Michael Gove was, then persisted in describing school pupils en masse as ‘kiddywinkles’, and finally dismissed us by saying, ‘try me again in six months’ time’.

Throughout August and September I was much engaged in preparing the major presentation to the Heads of the British independent public schools at the Head Masters’ Conference on the 5th October (*****).  This address drew upon all my personal and professional experiences and somehow or other was confined to 50 minutes. This was the most complete statement of the Initiative’s ideas made up to that stage. The evening before delivering it, as I drove up to St Andrews, I received the resignation of two of my trustees… the Initiative was feeling increasingly isolated.

A few presentations held during this time:

Atlantic College, 28th September

Learning in the Grain of the Brain, 6th July

Vancouver, 10th October

Business Council of British Columbia, 22nd November

Bath Abbey, 9th September