Teachers World – 29th September 1967
A Valuable School
These two reviews concern written about Braehead School by the headmaster Robert Mackenzie. Braehead and the principles it stands for are the subject of this week's pictorial feature.
The Sins of The Children
Braehead School is – or, since the final decision to close it must now have shattered a morale already eroded by long uncertainty – was a living exemplar for the recommendations of the Newsom Report years before that report appeared. To read of the school's wide-ranging activities; to see the lively and sensitive art; above all, to meet the pupils themselves, was to experience a resurgence of hope that there might yet be time and vision enough left to put those recommendations into effect, and to do so before the standards and ideals of the teaching profession had been finally swamped in the bland assurances, the half-truths and the deliberate lies that surround the world of education, and before the 'image-builders' could finally succeed in keeping the general public and its representatives from direct contact with its own schools.
It is by these 'image-builders' that the words 'Idealist', 'Visionary' and 'dreamer' are applied with derogatory force to Bob Mackenzie as they were previously applied to John Dewey, to Alex Bloom of East London, to Teddy O'Neil of Prestolee in Lancarkshire and to A S Neil of Summerhill even today. But to meet Bob Mackenzie is quickly to recognise a highly intelligent, perceptive and practical man who understands far more of administrative problems that he is given credit for. Because he takes seriously the meaning of 'in loco parentis' he treats his pupils as if they were his own children and, inevitably, finds himself fighting as any real father would, to create the conditions that will make it possible for those children to grow in health, grace and vitality. What father, appalled by the staggering irrelevance of the academic tradition of the needs of ordinary children, could say, 'The time is not yet ripe for change'. We must wait until public opinion is with us', knowing that public opinion will never catch up with informed experience and that, therefore, the time will never be ripe
Principles in practice
Braehead has been called an 'experimental' school. This is not so. It is a school where the staff are simply putting into daily practice what all the great educators have said about the role of the teacher and the method by which they could teach. All of them – Plato, Quintillion, Erasmus, Mulcastor, Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Moutessori and Dewey, to name only the better known – recognise the importance of the child's own impulses and interests, of using materials and topics that have real meaning for him and of moving at the child's own rate. They all stress that the qualities of the good teacher include gentleness, close knowledge of the child and a respect for every child's individuality.
Why is it, then that the support mustered on behalf of the school was ineffective either in keeping the school open or in ensuring that the staff could continue their work in the new and enlarged school? Basically it is because, although we strenuously claim to have a democratic system that is an example to the world, in practice this is a sham. The parents of the Braehead children are working class. The restricted pattern of their lives, spent in a hand-to-mouth fashion on the edge of poverty – and the lack of any relevant or adequate education combine to render them incapable of disentangling the tortuous complexities of the administration or of arguing their case confidently with officials and councilors. In short, they have been turned into second-class citizens and, in effect if not in name, (they still have the vote!), deprived of their democratic rights.
In the increasingly Kafka-like quality of our bureaucratic system only the well educated and the well-to-do can maintain their rights. They can read and understand the law's monstrous jargon – or they can employ lawyers to do so for them; they can talk to officials as equals and in their own language; they can enlist organizations and the press in their support, as witness the recent case of the grammar school parents against Enfield Borough Council. Full civic rights are confined, as they have always been, to the minority. With the growth of technology education has come to being a little closer in importance to wealth – though still a long way behind – but the best education, in terms of qualified staff and small classes, is still to be found in the public schools because their parents are able to pay for it. The combination of wealth with education in our technological society enables these schools to supply a vastly disproportionate number of Cabinet Ministers, bishops, bank directors, business-men, industrialists and directors of education. The grammar schools – over 90% of whose children come from the middle-class and have done since the 1930's – fill the gaps left by the public schools in the higher echelons of the political and business worlds.
It is, ultimately, against this entrenched group – bound together more effectively by the traditions and values absorbed in childhood (the 'old boy net') than by any conscious organization – that Bob Mackenzie has been fighting. The irony of the situation is that many of his opponents, local councilors, claim to belong to the Labour Party but are too under-educated to be able to argue with their social 'betters' or to be able to see 'O' and 'A' levels in the perspective of a full education. They see these tags only as ends in themselves or as magic keys to a golden future, to be won at whatever cost in sensitivity, taste or spontaneity, and they, themselves clamour for a acedemic education often with greater fanaticism than the more secure middle-class.
The title of this flowing book, The Sins of The Children, almost compels the reader to complete it with Shall be Visited on the Fathers and open up the melancholy and threatening prospect that the neglect and mis-handling of our young people by the older generations will come – is even now coming – back on them in the form of a wide-spread rejection of those adult standards (rigorous study, hard work, thrift, sexual continence until marriage), 'more honoured in the breach than the observance', by what, to youthful eyes, is a sanctimonious and hypocritical society. To those older generations whose 'morality' is based on fear of being found out rather than on a sympathetic identifying with the victim, this more open disregard of their dearest convictions causes near panic. They react with horror and anger, and they look as absurd, as Alf Garnett does when Mike and Rita 'take the mickey' our of his politics, his patriotism and his religion. The lack of rationality in their convictions is revealed by the degree of stuttering anger to which they are reduced.
Destroyed by society
Time and again Bob Mackenzie quotes details of children being caught and destroyed by a society whose values are so perverted that on the one hand, in its neurotic anxiety to preserve the unequal distribution of property, it will convict a man of 'loitering with intent' before a crime is committed, while it feebly protests its inability to take action to safeguard a child until the signs of neglect or ill-treatment (malnutrition, weals, broken bones) or the 'battered baby syndrome' – the stigmata of hate – give plain evidence that the crime has already been committed. So, in our calendar of wrong-doing, larceny bulks largest and its total cost in detection, courts, prisons, money and manpower is enormous. While trespass on young and vulnerable personalities is barely recognized. Cathy Come Home disturbed us precisely because we saw that it was true and that the punitive attitudes common in our social services was negating the purposes for which those services were established.
Through this, as through his other books, A Question of Living and Escape from the Classroom, there shines his magnanimity, his joy of seeing young people living freely and fully, his love of the Scottish countryside, his feeling for history as a palpable and visible pattern, the texture of life and inaxxxx today, and the integrity of his vision of education that places him securely as one of the greatest educators in our century. The pusilliantimity of Fife's administration may check his progress but it cannot claim the contribution he has already made to education and that he has still to offer.
To be continued... I hope...
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Thanks to Susan Blues for this article, it is surprising what people find tucked away in a drawer, or box... so get looking out there! Thankyou