“There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period…it is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, is arising from the rubble.”

Vaclav Havel

In the early 1980s more Englishmen were beginning to realise that English inherited cultural assumptions were inhibiting our willingness to ‘think outside the box’. The brilliant TV series ‘The Ascent of Man’ (Bronowski) in the early 1970s had thrilled a whole generation with the possibilities of human creativity. The publication by an American historian of ‘English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit; 1850 – 1980’ spurred more individuals than it did those institutions in which their professional lives were cast, to accept that possibly the way schools functioned might well be a major cause of the problem. Slowly some people came to accept the challenge thrown out by Prime Minister Callaghan (1976) to investigate what he called ‘The Secret Garden of the (school) Curriculum’.

By 1981, with six years experience of being Headmaster of Alleyne’s School in Stevenage, I wrote an impassioned letter to The Times, in response to the recent cuts that I saw threatened the quality of education. The letter concluded; “our young people are our most precious commodity, they deserve far, far better than we are, at the moment, prepared to put into education.” To my amazement this letter prompted Sir Keith Joseph, the recently appointed Minister of Education to invite himself to Alleyne’s ten days later to discuss the issue… quite suddenly I found myself realising that, if you knew what you were talking about, you might just succeed in bringing about change. This tiny exchange of only a couple or three hours was to unleash a whole string of events which, quite directly, led me to start to appreciate (though in no way to excuse), the struggles between central and local government to this day – and to the urgent need for this Initiative.

What had obviously impressed Joseph from our discussions was the way, two years before, Alleyne’s had established what was Britain’s first ever fully computerised classroom with a terminal for every pupil – and what had impressed me about Joseph was how quick he was to recognise that, expensive as was technology, the bigger and more expensive problem would be the training of staff to see that this should transform how teachers taught.

Keith Joseph and I obviously saw some things in the same way, but obviously the Cabinet did not. A few weeks, and several long phone calls later, and he told me that he wanted to see ‘The Open Terminal’ experiment widely replicated but, as Minister for Education, he had few funds to direct to something of this scale (all such funds up until then were in the hands of the LEAs) but he was in the process of doing a deal with David Young, the recently appointed Chairman of the vastly influential (and wealthy) Manpower Services Commission (MSC) … and that shortly I would hear from them. To me, to link computers specifically to vocational skills was to miss the even bigger opportunity to transform ‘teaching and learning’ across the entire curriculum. Most unfortunately by this time Joseph was ill and heading up for retirement. The officials at the MSC played the vocational card for all it was worth, and my credibility suffered (I, as a mere enthusiastic young head teacher, did not understand at the time how this was to be the beginning of central government and its Agencies taking control of the curriculum from the local Education Authorities).

Two years later reading a most thoughtful paper written by a number of churchmen and leading scientists – ‘Shaping Tomorrow’ – I again decided to prepare my own thoughts on the possible impact of technology on education systems noting that; “Social change and stress within society at large contributed towards an increase in the tensions at school. Partnership between home and school in a child’s development has, in too many cases, been replaced by distrust and little respect. This, unfortunately, seems to characterise the whole of our society – uncertainty, lack of respect, lack of understanding, encourage people to take up defensive and non-cooperative positions that heighten our internal social tensions”.

More as an attempt to shut me up, and remembering the harm that the officers of Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) thought I had done to the role of the LEA in controlling the Curriculum, I was eventually offered a terms’ secondment to go away and set out what might be the Authority’s role in shaping ‘A Curriculum Appropriate for the Year 2000’ – an impossible task which better sense would have suggested I should have declined, but good fortune here came to my assistance. A week or so later the local Employers Forum were to host a lunch for David Young and I was invited to propose a vote of thanks to him following the rather set piece speech he was to make (and which had been released to the press six hours before). I seized what looked to be a great opportunity and set out in the clearest possible terms that if government policy did not build on the latent strengths of a community, all would fall flat.

As I sat down Young passed me a scribbled Note – “If you really believe that come and see me in London on Monday”. I did and explained the Feasibility Study I was struggling to produce. “How quickly could you do that?” he asked. Somewhat thrown as to what could be the implications of the question I suggested two more terms. “Fine,” he replied, “tell your Authority that I will pay your salary for that time, on two conditions –firstly that you should travel anywhere in the world where you think there is something that could give us a clue as to what we should do, and secondly at the end of that time you and I will call on Keith Joseph and give him the results of you thinking”.

In military terms I had probably won a battle, but possibly lost the war. Delighted as I was at having the extended time, and some resource, to do the job, I knew that I was now seen within the Authority as someone capable of pulling strings behind their backs. That I was forced into doing this by their unwillingness to think creatively meant that, in the long run, I was showing up the Authority’s senior officers’ total lack of imagination and courage ….which was ironic in that everything I was arguing for then and now was – and is – an argument for the strongest, and most thoughtful, local democratic control of education. And it is this which makes me today a vigorous critic of current government proposals for the abolition of local democratic responsibility for education. There is one further irony… a year or so later Lord Joseph became the President of Education 2000.

After I completed a first draft of that Feasibility Report, and spent quality time in the United States, Scotland and Sweden, David Young and I did visit Joseph, but by that time the politics of relationship between LEAs and the Ministry were becoming ever more fraught. The Authority treated me with increasing suspicion and insisted that I went back to my earlier job as headmaster from January 1985.

For a few awful weeks it looked as if the whole idea would be still-born. This was to be the first of three ‘near-death’ situations that was to face Education 2000/the Initiative in the next 27 years.

Rescue came from two most unexpected sources; The trustees of Letchworth Garden City (the original Ebenezer Howard foundation of 1900) in the northern part of the county suddenly came forward with an offer even the Authority could not ignore… they offered to put their full support to offer the town of Letchworth with its four secondary schools and two independent schools, as the first location for just such a community project, and they offered me a fine set of fully-serviced offices, free of charge for an unlimited period (an offer which we were able to utilise for the next 18 years). Secondly, and totally separately, Education 2000, an organisation under the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh, had been founded in 1982 by a group of significant individuals from industry, commerce and education (meeting at Westfield College London University), “concerned that the normal mechanisms for change within education were insufficient to meet the challenge of equipping young people to lead creative, purposeful and responsible lives as they face unprecedented technological, economic and social change”, offered to underwrite my salary on a two year rolling contract.

It took only a few days to marry the interests of Letchworth and the trustees of Education 2000 in such a way that the Authority had nothing to lose by ‘blessing’ such an agreement which implied no on-going commitment on their part – other than an offer to re-employ me if everything fell flat, but only on the salary of a newly qualified teacher…. so much for us all being in this together! But it was a weak relationship on which to build what was intended to be a pioneering attempt at showing the creativity that local communities could release. It became a running cancer in the early years of Education 2000, with the Authority trying to hold back from Letchworth public funds equivalent to what we were raising privately. It was on this flimsy basis that I became the first (and so far the only) Director of the Trust in September 1985.

The Hertfordshire Project was Education 2000’s first active initiative, aimed to vitalise schools by using a case study district in Letchworth. It stated that, “There is a real danger of the emergence of two societies within our nation – one with work to do, familiar with all advances and advantages of new technologies; and the other without work, knowledge or hope. The education of youth must be such as to give them hope and confidence in themselves and the society of their future, as well as to provide the skills and knowledge on which the smooth functioning and development of society depends”.

Emphasis was placed on community involvement and responsibility; the utilisation of technology in an open and more dynamic forms of learning; re-orientating the curriculum and preparing young people for adulthood in times of rapid and complex change; through both formal and informal learning. We aimed for, and achieved, a ratio of one computer to every seven pupils in the six secondary schools when the national average in England was a single computer to each hundred pupils. At the same time we insisted that it was necessary to spend every bit as much on staff training as we spent on equipment. The project intended that pupils would develop a responsibility in their own learning which would wean them from dependence on teachers and develop the ability to synthesise across many disciplines and so transform the curriculum. Soon however, the Government’s new funding proposals for computers in classrooms were announced. The new Government schemes for educational improvement, schemes which did not engage the community, respond to local needs, consider how children learn or embrace pedagogic change.