When I first became the leader of Claires Court Senior Boys school, my title was Master-in-charge. My father was my boss; four years previously, he had detached himself off up to Ridgeway to establish a separate space for the education of boys aged 5 to 11, whilst Claires Court morphed from provisioning the prep school age range 6 to 13 to teaching up to O’Levels. David Wilding was and remains a remarkable man, who knew how to build schools to last. He was certainly not going to let me have wings and fly solo in my first headship, taking over as I had from Michael Randell who had found three years running the senior boys school a good step back into the private sector from leading a secondary state school PE department. Michael moved on to head up the Oratory Prep School and create there a powerhouse of the Prep School boarding world. My father had through his time in National Service at the end of the Second World War become a second lieutenant in the household cavalry, driving tanks in Germany. He built in our school a real understanding of Chain of Command, like the miltary, we all had to know our place and role in his ordered community.
My first week in charge saw the local rep from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools come in to see me, feel my collar, check the resisters, check the boundary fencing of the school and give me advice on how to complete the corporal punishment book and where to buy my canes from. I really don’t think HMI was on contract for the ‘Mr Wippy cane company’, but it did seem rather odd that throughout the visit which lasted at least an hour, we did not once speak about education. My readers will be comforted by the fact that I did not ‘cane’ pupils for long, but at the same time, good friends and parents of the school such as the Dibles, Dunsbiers and Dunsters and whose boys I had in my charge made it quite clear I had to keep up that tradition until I had earned the authority to use my ‘something better’ approach. After all, as another pupil of that era, Patrick Fanning would tell me time and again, ‘Sir, a good boy is a well beaten boy’.
Throughout the 1980s I would continue to take a very keen interest in the broader developments within education, meeting with Sir Keith Joseph, architect under Thatcher of so much in 1964 or 65 for example albeit briefly to understand his plans for the merger of O’levels with CSEs and the development of the curricula for GCSEs. Let’s be quite clear, at that time I had no idea who was in charge of education, and I don’t think anyone else did either, and such was the wishy washy nature of central civil government’s role in education that Sir Keith could personally choose to authorise each new subject curriculum. I am no fan of the old O’Level, which by the early 1980s had become a utterly sterile vehicle for teaching and learning. For example, half the Chemistry O’Level course involved learning of the industrial Chemistry of the Victorians and early 20th century. I remember teaching children how to label the Bessemer converter (a regular favourite) and was marking their work when my father-in-law Jack, an expert in Steel stockholding, visited one Saturday in 1978; “James, no wonder schools are failing their pupils if you are teaching about a piece of kit that last saw use in the 1930s!”
That was a salutary lesson for me, and I shifted completely to a modern science programme based on Nuffield Science, where process rather than key facts led learning. My early science education was supported by great giants of the independent sector at Oundle, Radley and Uppingham Colleges, and the passion that us young scientists shared over the Easter Holiday Science course for prep school teachers lives with me still. We were inspired to become leaders of thinking about teaching and learning because of the sheer vacuum that existed then. Publishers were so set in their ways that we all became authors of our own little ‘books’, created using hand copiers and methylated spirits known as Banda machines. My ‘Idiots Guide to Common Entrance Science’ was soon being sniffed eagerly by children age 10 to 13 at Claires Court, providing as it did a short cut to the learning needed to pass CE.
As our school expanded through the Thatcher years, leadership from the Secretary of States for education successfully brought in GCSEs. Far more importantly, central control of what was to be taught in schools from 5 to 16 became order of the day. The National Curriculum was born in 1988 creating a minimum basic requirement for content in all schools, enabling the comparison between schools through league tables, whilst at the same time creating a free market in which schools could operate. Ok that’s the History lesson over, so I’ll get to the point.
Since 1988 central government’s grip on state schools has got tighter and tighter, and now in 2012 will see for the first time the majority of secondary schools, perhaps even all schools in the direct control of the DfE as Academies. Claires Court is now surrounded by them, offering as they do (according to politicians) the chance to become like those of us in the private sector, independent of local authority control and therefore more likely to become successful schools. Mark my words, this is the most dangerous, unproven and ludicrous development in school management to have happened anywhere in the world. The thing about Local Authorities is that actually they are local, have authority and can provide knowledgeable support and guidance. National government will be no better at regulating schools than they are banks, health or our geographical borders. As my father would be the first to say, ‘where, oh where, is the Chain of Command’!
We will see develop in our area of the eastern Thames Valley as elsewhere a received wisdom that the narrowing of the curriculum is a good thing, that Year 8 for example is when GCSE choices are made and the concept of a broad secondary education for three years be neutered by the decision to required children before they are 13 years old consider in which subjects they wish to drop/specialise. It is not just ludicrously premature, but it flies in the face of the established criteria in the leading world exconomies that breadth is best to 18!
The same ideas are washing over the primary years too. Mr Gove might well speak of the need for languages and computing to be taught as early as possible, but in actual practice he is introducing more testing of the core not less. And schools of course are monetised by meeting the wishes of their masters, and what is measured becomes what is important to be taught. As the locally based subect advisors of the LEA are stripped away from supporting schools, nearby expertise will be replaced by on-line formulaic advice web-pages, helping schools line up their development plans to ensure that bench marks are met. Oh deary me.
It is humans that make the difference in all command and control systems, as all the experts know. Yep, human error is something to worry about, but I’d much rather rely on my father’s decisions in the turret of his tank that a 21st century robo-cop instead. It’s an eternal truth I am afraid that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, just look at the unfolding crisis in Syria, for example. And what follows the authoritarian grab for control is the inevitable chaos that follows; just as Syria’s stablity is now completely gone, so has that of state education in the United Kingdom. And the Chaos has now begun to arise all around. Next post will offer solution…