Transforming Public Discourse

For all those reading the Briefing Paper for Parliamentarians, or the Book Overschooled but Undereducated, it may be helpful to explain The Initiative’s understanding of what it takes to bring about change. These ideas will become ever more relevant as the country gets closer to the General Election.

As far as I, now the Director of The Initiative, was concerned it started long ago with the belief that was shared by so many of us in the 1960s that it was the teachers’ task to equip youngsters to think for themselves, and balance their personal aspirations with general societal well-being. We were taught by people well-enough versed in the classics to help us understand the truth of Aristotle’s critique of popular education – “they repeat, but without conviction.” Like Plowden we saw a glorious opportunity, through a revitalisation of education, to strengthen the country’s ability to make democracy work. Initially as a teacher, then Vice Chairman of the Royal Geographical Society’s Expedition Advisory Committee, and subsequently headteacher, my theory of change was of the standard textbook kind… start small, define carefully your objectives, define the time scale, assess progress as objectively as possible, and then if appropriate prepare to scale up.

As the youngest head of a secondary school in the country I was much impressed with Lord Bullock’s “Language for Life” (1975), that, if young people were to communicate well, it was essential that every teacher, regardless of discipline, be also a teacher of communication skills. (“Why should I, a teacher of chemistry, do the job of the English teacher?” complained my then senior chemistry teacher.) Bullock, who now seems extraordinarily prescient, was ignored.

Seeing in the power of the word processor in the mid 1970s, a technology that could make easier the task of drafting and re-drafting, I scrimped, cajoled and borrowed enough money to create what became Britain’s first ever fully-computerised classroom in 1979 with a terminal for everyone. That was the easy part… what was much more difficult to achieve was the staff training as to how to integrate this into the pedagogy of the various disciplines in the classroom.

We were soon overtaken by politicians. Keith Joseph (a good man but nearing the end of his career, and death) was much impressed but, not having funds within the DES itself in those days for curriculum innovation asked David Young at the Manpower Services Commission to put this on a national basis by announcing the £700 million Technological and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI). This, as far as my thinking was concerned, almost totally missed the point by excessively linking the technology, not with pedagogy, but with specific vocational skills.

See “No Smoke Without Fire”, Action 10 in Briefing Paper and the Introduction to Overschooled but Undereducated.