Classic Texts Revisited - Kate Philip
R.F. Mackenzie's State School
State School documents an attempt to humanise education for working class children in Scotland in the early seventies. It is a synthesis of three books written by R.F. Mackenzie about his experience as head teacher of Braehead, a 'junior secondary school' in a declining mining village on the coast of Fife in Scotland. Mackenzie's challenge to traditional approaches to education was very much in tune with wider themes of social change of the time. It also coincided with the emergence of new social movements which Mackenzie himself viewed as elements of a new 'cultural revolution'. For Mackenzie, education had a key role, 'to put life and purpose and community back into a society which is at odds with itself' (Mackenzie, 1970:133)
For Mackenzie education lay well beyond the confines of formal schooling and his work holds valuable insights for youth work, community development and citizen's rights. State School is a powerful indictment of what he described as the punitive and bureaucratic educational system in Scotland. He accused school-based education of brutalising both children and teachers in an alienating system that aimed for conformity rather than questioning and that reinforced the hegemony of an unequal society.
For Mackenzie, schools were centres of social control but they also held a potential to transform society. Society itself was in a state of uncertainty and flux. This flux was most evident in the ways that young people who are already disadvantaged, lose hope and become disenchanted at an early age having been judged as failures by the examination system. Full scale reform of both content and method was called for to prevent this disintegration. Arguably, this somewhat apocalyptic vision bears some resemblance to current government anxieties about young people's potential to undermine the fabric of society although the solutions proposed by Mackenzie are based on very different premises.
His optimism about social change through education was tempered with the understanding that elite groups with vested interests would undermine this by manipulating ordinary people into believing themselves incapable of taking control. To Mackenzie, real learning took place in a climate of support and mutual respect. His critique of formal education as a commodity in which knowledge remains the monopoly of 'experts' has strong resonances with Freire's (1976) notion of education as 'banking'. It also links with notions of schools as sites for the accumulation of 'social capital' by the bourgeoisie which Bourdieu identifies (1977) as a means of excluding other groups from power.
Mackenzie suggests that a 'full education' takes place through dialogue, discussion, and an engagement with the social. political and natural worlds that starts from the young person. Through such a process, learning becomes a shared enterprise between teacher and taught where curiosity spurs both on to find out more and to make sense of what is going on. In this scenario, schools could afford young people both a 'respite from pressure' and an opportunity to try new experiences and so work towards a more meaningful curriculum. A key element of this was the extension of the classroom beyond the school building and in particular to draw on the skills of people living and working in communities.
Mackenzie - a Scottish radical and an international thinker
Although an internationalist in his outlook, reading and experience, Mackenzie was a peculiarly Scottish writer, teacher and radical thinker. His work is a continuing link to an alternative educational tradition in Scotland: that of Patrick Geddes, William Boyd and the freeschoolers of the twentieth century, John Aitkenhead and A.S.Neill. Mackenzie and Neill corresponded regularly on the challenges of bringing free school education to the state system (Croall, 1983).
In important respects, RF Mackenzie's own education represented that of the classic 'lad of pairts': he grew up in a working class family in the rural north east of Scotland, doing well at school and going on to shine at the local university. His railwayman father did overtime to pay his university fees, as he did for all his six children. Both parents viewed education as a means of escape from poverty and the narrowness of their own existence, being highly independent characters who inspired a critical take on the world. His father deployed a fierce intellect on the examination of biblical texts and bluntly informed his undergraduate son that he wanted to hear his opinions, not that of his professor. Mackenzie described his mother as a perfectionist, skilled in music, art and embroidery who, as a young woman, to the dismay of her family, had travelled across Europe as a ladies maid, the only option available to escape the confines of a small fishing community.
As a teenager, Mackenzie spent hours with an anarchist railway clerk in his shack named 'Utopia' talking politics, history, literature and religion. This experience and his university studies confirmed his already critical attitude to formal education. After graduation, Mackenzie set off with a friend to bicycle across Europe seeing first hand the growth of fascism. He saw this trip as 'real education' grumbling that for four years of developing life we played with words and imagined we were handling realities (Mackenzie and Diack, 1935:1). Their panniers held a bag of oatmeal for food, a tent, a box of books and a typewriter on which they recorded daily notes of their travels, many of which were later published. This set a lifelong habit of communicating experiences and developing ideas in order to challenge an academic history which he criticised for 'telling the stories of the generals and never the troops'.
His output was prolific embraced all kinds of media from books to newspaper articles with his work attracting attention from across the world. He was very generous with his time acting as a lecturer on citizens rights for a welfare rights project, joining meetings of freeschoolers, and supporting a whole range of community based activity in Aberdeen in his years at Summerhill. In all this activity, he demonstrated the indomitable faith in human nature and the infectious warmth and humour that infuses his writing.
In his introduction to the book, Mackenzie outlines his earlier experiences as a botany teacher at a free school in the New Forest. Knowing little of botany, he had been open about his ignorance with his students and found that the joint learning became a process of discovery which he describes vividly in a passage that typifies his engagement with children and with the natural world,
- In those botany classes we were nearer, I think, to integrating education into a full enjoyment of life than I have usually been since. There was a full sensuous quality about it. There was drama in the discovery of the deadly nightshade; and one bright, bright day out in the Forest in wet ground coming on a group of sundews and watching them absorb the insects they had trapped (ibid: 8)
The school was run by the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry as an experiment which aimed to integrate new ideas in education with an understanding of the outdoors and with children's own interests. He describes activities at the school as sometimes comical, 'a mixture of red Indians and Freud'. He makes an important point which underpins his own later persistence and commitment in the face of ridicule and hostility,
- Many people made fun of it at the time. The founders weren't unduly disturbed. I think they had emotional reserves enough to know that people who confine their philosophising to theoretical discussion are on safe ground, but that as soon as you try to put your own original ideas into practice the great gulf between the neatly turned sentences in which they are enunciated and the raw and insufficient reality is bound to make you silly. They were prepared to look silly, and go on…(ibid: 8)
Braehead - the Coal Town
Buckhaven, on the Fife coast presented a strong contrast to the gentle setting of the woodland school. Mackenzie felt strongly that working class children should benefit from the benefits of freeschooling: he reasoned that in a junior secondary, the pressure for examinations would be eased enabling the development of a more flexible curriculum. This could offer scope to interweave out of school and in school learning.
A.S. Neill of Summerhill was highly pessimistic about the potential for success, or even survival, in the state setting. He wrote to Mackenzie, suggesting that 'guys like you are the heroes that work inside the system with all the handicaps that never touch me' and later warned that '…if you are a pioneer you have a lifetime of fighting all the dead people who are in authority. You have made your name and remember that the devils are scared of any guy who writes books (Croall, 1983,20-21).
Mackenzie and a growing band of like minded young staff that comprised a good number of teachers in the school, set about replacing a system based on the 'suspicious and drilled conscription for the machine' with a 'living education'. The book details a wide range of examples of work that developed within this broad curriculum and relates these to issues that arose and to wider questions about the purpose of education. A rich range of opportunities were seized to both stimulate and capitalise on young people's interests: these include the dilemmas for pupils involved in the new school council; pupils working with journalists to learn about news and then using the knowledge to produce a newsletter; the building and launching of a boats, lobster posts and fishing gear; innovative sex education programmes, learning about the law by querying a judge and observing courtroom work; gliding, music and arts work However it is in the description of work in the outdoors that the book really comes alive. The accounts of residential trips form some of the most powerful passages with vivid descriptions of the countryside, the small changes and great leaps made in the confidence and skills of students, and the opportunistic use made of local worthies and experts. A passage that captures the essence of this work documents a trip with which many youth workers may identify,
- I think that almost unconsciously the pupils were learning a lesson you can't learn in the classroom, that in a Highland journey..the discomforts, the depression, the wet clothing, the spilt soup and the cold, are indissolubly bound up with the top of the morning happiness. You can't have one without the other (ibid: 113).
The school was donated an old building by a company but it needed substantial work undertaken to make it safe. Over two years, Mackenzie argued with the council for support to develop the building as a residential unit. The dream of the Inverlair scheme collapsed due to the timidity of the council and Mackenzie deftly highlights the negotiations and contradictory attitudes of officials and councillors.
Mackenzie's rationale for the benefits of such a 'full education' was based on a conviction that education could offer powerful experiences for young people as they confronted the realities of growing up in Coaltown,
- We want them to see at first hand the web of economic life, the interdependence of foresters, lock-keepers and railwaymen and paper workers and printers and the people who provide them with entertainment, build houses for them. And what we are looking for, for our pupils is that being as they are, 'displaced persons' for the Coal Town pit is likely to close down shortly..to give them an education which will help them to understand and endure and survive the Industrial revolution which is disrupting their lives and to choose wisely when they take their place in tomorrow's world (ibid:80)
In important respects then, Mackenzie was working with a notion of citizenship, but a citizenship which was based on recognition of the potential of young people rather than their deficiencies. Here his vision is couched in terms of survival in an uncertain and potentially hostile world. The actual transformation of society, envisioned earlier is here defined as a long term aim.
One of the strengths of the book lies in Mackenzie's ability to critically reflect on his own actions and mistakes, as in his account of trying to ban corporal punishment, a process which culminated in dissatisfied staff appealing successfully to the director of education to lift the ban. This excerpt also illustrates how his sure touch with children did not always extend to work with all staff, some of whom he viewed as too concerned with immediate and to him, trivial problems, to the neglect of the wider social implications. On the other hand, many who worked with him, remain strong and convincing advocates of his approach, some having been convinced of the value of this through argument and discussion with Mackenzie. One such teacher commented later, that the system could not cope with Mackenzie as 'he upsets their certainties and questions their truths'.
Mackenzie was also adept at learning from interventions that failed or incidents where young people reacted negatively as for example, when, on one nature trip, a large amount of wildlife was destroyed by school students.. This attracted a great deal of negative press attention which fanned some of the discontent already being expressed about his methods.
The conflict with parents at Braehead is closely analysed with an acknowledgement that he had neglected to work with parents in any serious way, having focused his attention firmly on the young people. Nevertheless some interesting examples are given of discussions between parents and Mackenzie. Many saw the emphasis on art and the casual approach to exams as evidence that their children were being cheated of a 'proper' education, however much the system discriminated against them. This demonstrates a tension about the school as a community resource. Mackenzie would have been horrified at the thought of the school being perceived as remote from the young people but appeared to place less importance on drawing parents into the processes.
The education authority was ambivalent about Mackenzie from the outset: proud to be seen to be promoting an experiment which attracted national attention but unwilling to back requests for practical experiments and fearful of substantive change. When difficulties arose, they tended to retreat and to fall back on conventional responses. The subsequent closure of the school was fought hard by Mackenzie and the strong staff group that supported him. Again Mackenzie analyses this as an example of systemic faults and as an element of a wider malaise. The lead up to this is clearly and rather bitterly summarised in the final chapters of the book. Clearly these experiences tap into and explore enduring themes in Scottish and UK policy towards young people.
It is clear that some of Mackenzie's hard fought battles have now been won: for example, the outlawing of corporal punishment in schools, the inception of school councils, and the focus on socially inclusive education are now national priorities. However the underlying themes of Mackenzie's work remain central to current debates around the role of education such as the controversies about 'failing schools' standardising of education and the coercive nature of much schooling. The retreat into uniform, discipline and a standardised curriculum as solutions to the challenges facing education are equally anathema to the kind of education promoted in State School. Debates over the appropriate balance of empowerment and control within social policy directed at youth, the nature of social exclusion and the purpose of education consistently retread the ground of State School.
For example, the concept of the 'new community school' is often presented in a highly ahistorical way. The work of RF Mackenzie illuminates serious ideological tensions underpinning these 'new' interventions as well as presenting evidence of earlier approaches which addressed similar issues albeit with a different concept of the relationship between learner and teacher.
The current rhetoric about partnerships also owes something to Mackenzie who viewed such linkages as actively involving children as participants in key decision making arenas including the curriculum. Thus school councils were not composed of the budding politicians of student politics, but open meetings in which all could have their say. Neither was the content just about deciding who should staff the canteen or coffee bar but about the nature and content of the curriculum. Anarchic, noisy and combative, such meetings offered a genuine taste of democracy and opened up important questions about representation, accountability and democracy. Crucially such approaches were not seen as ends in themselves but experiments in democracy.
Much of the content of State School reinforces the significance of those youth work approaches which aim to develop genuinely negotiated agendas between staff and young people so that education becomes a voluntary activity rather than a compulsory chore. The benefits of a voluntary relationship in which mutual respect is built up and from which a negotiated agenda is possible, opens up the potential for both individual and collective learning. The emphasis on education as an enjoyable, even sensuous which builds on the interests of the young person and which helps them to reflect on their situation in a 'safe' context lies firmly at the centre of State School.
Mackenzie's introduction of a sex education programme which started from the concerns of young people themselves was genuinely ground breaking and must have raised considerable ire among the more conservative elements within the wider community. Current school based sex education is still criticised by young people for being designed to fit with professional discourses rather than their needs.
This book is written out of a passionate commitment to young people, not with a mawkish sentimentalism but with a profound belief in their capacity. The polemical style of the book may obscure the development of some points but lends the overall argument an energetic tone. Inevitably the tragic unfolding of events around the closure of the school leads to a sober final chapter. However, he strikes a challenging if idealistic note,
Mackenzie after Braehead
- They refuse to be patronised any more. The lesson of history is clear enough. The intellectual elites..will have to go. That means we shall have to start treating all human beings with the same respect. And from there it will be easier to find and tap a new emotional dynamic to put life and purpose and community back into a society which is at odds with itself.
On leaving Braehead, Mackenzie moved to Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland. Here the local council initially promised both scope and support to develop his radical agenda within a mainstream secondary school. However, early on it became clear that political support for such a radical shift was ambivalent. Predictably, the issues of corporal punishment and discipline became key areas of contention, much of it being focused around a highly innovative guidance system. The arguments, the political loss of nerve and the eventual suspension are powerfully documented in Mackenzie's book, The Unbowed Head.
Mackenzie himself somehow continued to write throughout the debacle - replying to critics in the local and national press, setting out his own analysis in newspapers, journals and conferences. As with all his work, the case attracted national attention much to the embarrassment of many officials in Aberdeen. More embarrassing still, the clarity of his reports to the Education Committee frequently tied politicians and educational officials into knots by exposing their double thinking.
What has often been forgotten is the strong support that Mackenzie commanded from many colleagues, some politicians, education officials, some parents and the wider community. His charismatic approach convinced many initially sceptical of his approach, a feature that was recognised even by his opponents.
Many pupils at Summerhill were in no doubt about their loss: they organised a week long strike in support of Mackenzie. It is unfortunate that little attention, as yet, has been paid to young people's accounts of their experience of Mackenzie's Summerhill. However, Murphy (1998) records that shortly before his death, 200 ex pupils of Summerhill turned up for a reunion with Mackenzie and staff and recorded how they had been influenced by him in the bringing up of their own children.
In the aftermath, Mackenzie refused an offer by the Council to head up a special unit for disruptive pupils. It was clear he would secure little support to do anything other than 'patch up' children. He continued to discuss, to talk to students in community work courses about the educational content of their work, to lecture on education on citizens rights courses, to present papers at educational conferences and above all, to write. A.S. Neill's pithy letters to Mackenzie (whom he described as a 'bonny fechter') also reveal the depth of isolation both faced. For the rest of his life, Mackenzie continued to lambast the punitive educational system and what he described as 'cosmetic changes' that he viewed as 'not even papering over the cracks', to outline alternative approaches, and to write a final book, A Search for Scotland in which he revisits many themes hinted at in earlier work.
The recent controversy over the Ridings school in Yorkshire provoked interesting comparisons with Braehead from Peter Preston in the Guardian (1996). Apart from this however, Mackenzie's legacy has been largely overlooked. For youth workers and community educators, Mackenzie's insights and principles validate the principles of education as a critical, reflective set of processes based on voluntary relationships and mutual respect. Restating the centrality of such an educational role may be an important means of underlining the key role of good youth work practice.
Bourdieu P (1977) Reproduction: in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage
Croall J (1983) (Ed) All the Best, Neill. Letters from Summerhill. London: Andre Deutsch.
Freire P (1976) Education: the Practice of Freedom. London: Readers and Writers Co-operative
Mackenzie R.F. (1963) A Question of Living. London: Collins.
Mackenzie R.F. (1965) Escape from the Classroom. London;Collins.
Mackenzie R.F. (1967) The Sins of the Children. London: Collins
Mackenzie R.F (1970) State School. Middlesex: Penguin
Mackenzie R.F. (1976) The Unbowed Head. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Murphy P.A. (1998) The Life of R.F.Mackenzie: a prophet without honour.
Published in Youth and Policy - Spring 2002 (No. 75)
by the National Youth Agency
Youth and Policy is devoted to the critical study of youth affairs and youth policy. The National Youth Agency provides information and support for all those concerned with the informal, personal and social education of young people.
Visit their web site at http://www.nya.org.uk/YandP-cont.htm
Thanks to Kate Philip and to Youth and Policy for permission to reproduce this article.