The Guardian, November 1, 1996
Written by Peter Preston
I keep thinking about RF. Mackenzie this craven, caterwauling week of moral panic. What on earth (or the Scottish heaven he surely inhabits) would Mackenzie make of Manton Junior and the benighted Riding of Halifax – not to mention the gulping National Forum on Values in Education and Community?
He was always one of my heroes – the headmaster of Braehead Secondary School, Buckhaven, Fife, from 1957 until 1967 (when Old Labour on the county council and Old Labour in the Scottish Office closed him down). He gave them the screaming habdabs. He would have sent Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips into terminal shock. But he was a truly great teacher.
Mackenzie started from the children, not the system. He gathered round him a staff of like minds which fizzed with purpose, which sought- from a gray, impoverished town of a catchment area – to turn out thinking, rounded human beings. They didn't stream or categorise at Braehead. They put uncounted hours into finding where a kid came from and what he or she could do that would build self-esteem and wider horizons. It was, avowedly, experimental. That's why it was shut down. The state sector couldn't abide experiment.
"In the new chrome, streamlined, efficient comprehensives of the Labour administration," Mackenzie mordantly observed, " we shall all have to work harder to get examination results so that we shall have more technologists." He didn't live to meet Ken Baker or Gillian Shephard.
The Braehead issue was not that every school could or should be like that. Obvious impossibility. The issue was whether some rare schools which had the drive and the vision could be allowed to be like that. Obviously not. The "system" would only tolerate the conventional.
But convention operates to its own rules. If schools are to be standardised, monitored factories for the provision of grades and career opportunities, then their staff become workers in that factory. If that is a ten year old called Mathew Wilson who causes trouble, the factory rejects him (just as the system rejected Mackenzie).
RF. Mackenzie never claimed that he was right, in the sense that what he believed and what he achieved could be endlessly extrapolated across the nation. He merely hoped he and his school had a right to exist. Hope denied. The politicians and many parents, replicating convention saw him off. It was Mission Impractical.
And yet, in the deepest sense, BS was a modern school. It didn't stick a Forum mission statement on the wall hailing "loyalty, trust and confidence" or "respect for the dignity of all people". It lived those things, seeking explicitly to replace the decline of Christian underpinning (then as now) not just be alternative classroom texts but by the community of pupils and teachers together.
We ought, I think, to be clear about current panic. Bob Mac, as ever, would manage a melancholy smile. Schools, in his bitter experience, didn't mold society. The expectations of society molded schools. They squeezed out the time or ability to care or to try something different for a different, small human being. The thought that a couple of phrases about the sanctity of "two parent marriage" could redeem the world would make him guffaw. This is malign parody of the arguments which laid him low 30 years ago. Schools can't achieve much, but they can achieve a little: he got chopped for that achievement.
To remember Mackenzie now, to pluck him from the mists of forgetfulness, is really to establish the basic conundrum. His way – his separate, moral way – was no panacea for a country short of technologists or mathematicians. But, in his life, he showed that there was also a choice and a balance. Authority, even then invoking past models, decreed that there could be no choice, no deviation. Now, with even less deviation, we seek to impose what we have swept away. Would the sage of Braehead have lingered long over such imbecility? Probably not, I think. He was always more interested in the future of society than in ignorant reconstruction of fusty memories.
He was a modern, moral man.