An Education System: But What For? And When Will We Answer the Question?

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:38 pm

Michael Newman

We are trapped in an ever-repeated education debate, whose very simplicity and facile nature allows everyone to contribute equally; meanwhile, our children are taught that learning is about exams, their futures, and what jobs they are to do. The majority struggle, the majority fail the five GCSE’s grade A-C, but once they are free from school they can ‘control’ their lives and will not have to study again, except maybe to improve their jobs. Our society continues to confuse human rights with consumerism — we have shopping riots, we have problems with community, with child poverty, with fear of youth, with ethnic differences. What kind of society do we want? How can our schools support this aim? And how can we escape the nausea of this ever-repeating debate that is more like sound bites from a popular TV show than an attempt to answer some of the most important questions we face.

Our new government has been challenging many apparently progressive moves that occurred under Labour. Whilst people on the web and in industries linked to ICT and creativity are holding debates around innovation and revolutionising our schools, there appears to be a regression back to the training of children to pass exams and gain qualifications that will allow them to take opportunities to further study and work. This is reflected in Toby Young’s ‘Free School’, based on his own experiences of schooling: the back to good old basics attitude that only requires that you have been a child in a school for you to talk about schooling and education, whilst the actual child has little voice in the debate.

“What we need to do to address the recycling of schooling debates is to include the children.”

The education secretary Michael Gove focuses schooling on exams as the conclusion to courses, and has recently announced a new Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, “who has told the BBC he is prepared to shake up England’s schools and that he will not tolerate any school being given an Ofsted rating of “outstanding “ unless it achieves outstanding academic results”. Gove is critically looking at the place of citizenship education and its contribution to academic achievement, and in his support of the baccalaureate measure of a school’s success seems to downplay the creative aspects of the curriculum. Teaching is about control, respect for authority, the efficient learning of academic subjects, and the measurement and celebration of outcomes as exams and qualifications. There is no need for education philosophy, or sociology, or psychology except for increasing the effectiveness of teaching.

What is at stake in the current education debate?  Why is its very nature part of the problem? How can we escape from the recurring nightmare of the repeated mantras of standards, basics and achievements: either from the right wing — training to be good producers and consumers — or the left wing —increasing equality through the opportunities of motivated training to pass exams — and, from both, the turning of our children into willing volunteers for the Big Society.

Let us start with some surprising establishment views about the direction education should have taken:

“What cannot be doubted is that a piece of fascinating and valuable educational research is going on here which it would do all educationalists good to see.” (HMI report 1949 on Summerhill)

“A vision of what the new form of secondary school can be.”  (HMI report 1948 on St Georges in the East)

These are the words of HMI, or Osfted, the very organisation that threatened Summerhill School with closure in 1999. We used the first quote to invite politicians, the Select Committee on Education, and educationalists to visit the school, or to meet us all when we held a democratic community meeting in the Jubilee Room at the House of Commons in 1999. They have yet to visit.  They prefer to meet with celebrities and hear about Jamie Oliver’s experiments in education made for a popular TV audience. Even so, they have discussed Summerhill’s fight with Ofsted and the consequences of its legal fight for survival.

Sadder still, no one seemed to respond to the opinions of HMI in 1948 and 1949. The 1948 comment is about an East London school that A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill School, thought was the furthest any state school could go with democracy, participation, and children controlling their learning. He visited the school a few times as guest of honour at their prize giving ceremony. You may have read about St Georges-in-the-East in the novel ‘To Sir, With Love’ by E.R. Braithwaite.

A. S. Neill was a teacher and writer who in 1921 founded Summerhill School in response to his experiences of teaching in state schools in Scotland. He wanted to create a school in which the children would be happy, would have no fear, would be able to choose how and what they learn, would be able to play as much as they wanted, would be able to express and share their emotions and creativity, and would be able to control their lives through democratic meetings.

A.S. Neill: The founder of Summerhill School

In 1915 he published his first book, A Dominie’s Log, which would become the Dominie Book series. This was a diary of his life as a teacher. He begins sitting on his school desk reflecting on the rules of writing an official school log. ‘You must not put your feelings, ideas or reflections into it.’ He goes on to think about why he is the head teacher of Gretna Green village school, and why the children of farm workers, who will never own a home or go to university, come to his school. The series ends with the book, A Dominie Abroad, in which he sets up his own school as a result of his thoughts and experiences of education and children. Summerhill School is the result of years of reflection on philosophy, different models of practise, experiences of teaching, discussions with other practitioners, psychologists, criminologists, educationalists.  Neill is now recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s hundred most important educationalists.

This is a different world from that of Toby Young’s inspirational experiences of being a teenager in a strict, traditional, and successfully academic school. This difference in ‘heroes of change’ reflects the difference in their values. The arguments of the traditionalists are obvious — ones that we can all sympathise with as they relate to how we felt as children in our own schools. Give us soldiers or great communicators from television, and without any knowledge of education theory, practice or history, they will make good teachers and schools. If not, then we simply need to train them in classroom methods.

Neill reflects on the wider questions, necessarily ignored by the Toby Youngs and Goves of this world:

“Books are the least important apparatus in a school. All that any child needs is the three R’s; the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom. Most of the schoolwork that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play; it puts old heads on young shoulders.

When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge. They know a lot; they shine in dialectics; they can quote the classics – but in their outlook on life many of them are infants. For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel. These students are friendly, pleasant, eager, but something is lacking – the emotional factor, the power to subordinate thinking to feeling. I talk to these of a world they have missed and go on missing. Their textbooks do not deal with human character, or with love, or with freedom, or with self-determination. And so the system goes on, aiming only at standards of book learning – it goes on separating the head from the heart.”

Imagine if HMI’s comments on St Georges and Summerhill had been followed-up. If our schools were now based on the work and experiences of these and similar schools, imagine what our children would be like. Imagine what learning would be like if, as Sir Ken Robinson stated in his concluding speech to the TEDx London conference, our progressive schools should become the mainstream innovators. Indeed, imagine what our teachers would be like.

Strangely, there is a sense that this has happened with creative, self-directed, and individualised child-centred learning; the input of children’s voices into their learning and their schools; the right not to be physically punished; the importance of play and the role of emotions in learning; the previous government’s growing importance of citizenship education, participation and enterprise.  All this may be seen to be influenced by Summerhill — if nothing else but as the icon of progressive education. Again, quoting the ‘enemy’, the Conservative Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Young, in 1999:

“My Lords, is it not a fact that in many respects Summerhill School has been the pioneer of many educational ideas which have subsequently been incorporated into mainstream school teaching and practice?”

Sadly, these changes have greatly affected our primary schools but not our secondary schools. I remember picking up a battered Penguin children’s book on my local doctor’s waiting room table called ‘The Primary School’. The class take a vote on where they want to go for their class trip!

How can schools based on children’s rights be created?  “By the children.” – Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner

Our national curriculum subject descriptions and assessments, literacy and numeracy hours, and SATs all undermined these changes. Indeed they undermine the aims and values of the National Curriculum and state education, which are to develop successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve; confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives; and responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

These values are very close to those of the progressive education movement, and are hardly referenced by the traditionalists. In Summerhill’s most recent inspection in October 2011, on the school’s 90th birthday, Ofsted finally recognised that we fulfilled these aims:

“Pupils behaviour is outstanding…”     “Pupils develop clear views in how to live their lives and there is a tangible atmosphere of tolerance and harmony.”    “Pupils have an extremely deep understanding of work-related learning.”

At last, as a result of a legal battle in the Royal Courts of Justice in 2000, a team of modern inspectors examined the school according to its values and philosophy instead of those of academic classroom teaching. Summerhill is now seen to be a working school that shows excellence in its development of active citizens, ‘outstanding’ in eight aspects of its provision and practice, and ‘good’ in all others. Even so, we do not expect the government or the Select Committee of Education to come and learn from us.

So why should they? What issues about schools, learning and modern society does Summerhill address?

We are in a rapidly changing world: our technology, our knowledge, the nature and diversity of our communities are all being transformed. Religious people claim that we are in a moral malaise because people are deserting God and so they are fighting for religious schools and the influence of religion on values education in state schools; business people claim our children are not ready for work and that we need to compete with producers and businesses around the world; our universities are always criticising the young people they get as lacking in basic information and literacy and numeracy skills; our government argues that we must get back to basics to ensure that children become literate and numerate so that they can access opportunities in our society; our children need to learn parenting skills so that children in the future do not become ‘feral’…the list goes on and on.

The irony of this debate, and the sense of superficiality of it all, only hits you if you bother to look up a bit of history. The arguments have been repeated again and again and again. Darwin’s Bulldog, the scientist Prof T. H. Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’, was on the first School Board of London and his words echo through time:

“In fact there is a chorus of voices, almost distressing in their harmony, raised in favour of the doctrine that education is the great panacea for human troubles, and that, if the country is not shortly to go to the dogs, everybody must be educated. The politicians tell us, ‘You must educate the masses because they are going to be masters’. The clergy join in the cry for education, for they affirm that people are drifting away from church and chapel into the broadest infidelity. The manufacturers and the capitalists swell the chorus lustily. They declare that ignorance makes bad workmen; that England will soon be unable to turn out cotton goods, or steam engines cheaper than other people; and then, Ichabod! Ichabod! the glory will be departed from us. And a few voices are lifted up in the favour of the doctrine that the masses should be educated because they are men and women with unlimited capacities of being, doing, and suffering, and that it is as true now, as ever it was, that the people perish for lack of knowledge.”

These issues hit the headlines during the debate around public education that led to the Foster Act (1870) that created a national schooling system. In the school boards around the country and in the House of Commons they had to discuss ‘What is a school? What is a teacher? How big should a classroom be?   What should be taught?’ They are in the writings, speeches and the workings of the school created by Robert Owen in response to the industrial revolution at New Lanark.

There are several problems here.  Firstly, the failure of our schooling system to respond to debates and to take account of the evidence and work in the fields of sociology, education research, psychology and child development.  Secondly, the failure of our school system to reflect the values to which it is framed and is supposed to legally express — the Education Act and the aims of the National Curriculum.  And lastly, the failure of the school system to tackle the problems projected onto it.

Michael on a panel with Summerhill students answering questions as part of celebrating the school's 90th birthday at the Institute of Education's students union. Courtesy of Michael Newman

What we need to do to address the recycling of schooling debates is to include the children. It is to allow our school students to find out about the evidence, the history, the working models of progressive schools and communities — from Robert Owen’s school at New Lanark, to Nellie Dick’s Whitechapel school that she founded in the early 1900s at age thirteen, to Janus Korczak’s Warsaw ghetto orphanage, to Bloom’s St Georges-in-the-East, to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill. Let these models of practice, of the history of the implementation of children’s rights, become a part of our children’s culture, and then let them see how they can adapt these successes to their own schools and communities.

The fight for good education is part of the fight for our children to have their rights expressed in their communities including their schools. After women, blacks, ethnic minorities, the working class, and groups of different sexuality, children are the last group prevented from struggling for their rights. Ironically, the image of the child was the powerful argument used to deny most of these groups their rights. We continue to do so by projecting onto our children the need for authority and control, experiences from our own childhoods, rather than the contrary examples of what children do when given those rights. We need the children to be able to respond to Toby Young and attack his view of childhood with a look at what’s happened, is happening and what has worked.

Without children’s rights all of our human rights are undermined. How can we have the values and culture of rights that protects groups from being bullied, imprisoned, disempowered, exploited, and killed if our childhoods are based on the opposite, paternalistic authority? When asked how schools based on children’s rights could be created, Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner, said “by the children”. This can only happen if the children can see that rights are about justice, and that arguments about responsibilities and practicalities can be answered through models of extreme practice. They need to disarm those adults who hang onto unaccountable power by showing them that schools based on children’s rights can work, have worked and will work.

My mission is to help our children transform their schools as active citizens fighting for their rights. For children to be active global citizens they should learn about school councils and children’s voice through radical models of practice that create an alternative framework from orthodox, traditional schooling, allowing them to question the assumptions of the nature of childhood, learning and power. This will enable them to develop the underlying values of children’s rights and social justice.


Michael Newman trained as a science teacher to deliver the then newly created national curriculum,attended the Speakers Conference on Citizenship in 1990, which was chaired by Francis Morrell, and included Shadow spokesperson Jack Straw with the Education Secretary John McGregor.  He has been active at conferences either as a delegate or speaker on citizenship, rights and educational innovations including social enterprise with the Executive Director of the Serco Institute, Gary Sturgess.   He has also worked at A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School for over 11 years as teacher and then houseparent, facilitating the children’s campaign to save the school in 1999, and organising events with them ever since to share Summerhill’s history and philosophy with other children and educationalists.  For the past six years he has been a school project worker for active global citizenship working with primary and secondary schools in Tower Hamlets and London, working on children’s and human rights, local democracy, sustainability, ICT, community cohesion, and co-operative enterprise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: