The Plowden-type children were nothing like as easy to define. Not only did they not sit still in a literal sense, their interests and abilities often ran off in very different directions. Their faith in themselves was strong, and the urge they had to work things out for themselves, ruled their every action. Their bevaviour intimidated the established staff who found this openness and enthusiasm hard to cope with.
It took the primary school Head to point out the obvious to me. “Don’t you realise that, in the best of the primary schools, we’re trying very hard to give children the skills to think, and to work things out for themselves? It seems to me that you in the secondary schools – although you try to deny this – willingly accept the artificiality of single subject disciplines. It makes it i easier for you to teach – but that is NOT the same as being good for learning. Instead of giving children the skill to work things out for themselves you overload them with content.
“The integrated view of knowledge that the primary school has tried so hard to develop is all too easily lost in the secondary school. Pupils do as they’re told because they’ve been conditioned into accepting that teacher knows best. The individual no longer feels responsible. That’s terrible, ….the secondary system stands condemned for destroying, in the minds of so many young people, that vital attribute of personal responsibility. Many youngsters never recover because they see learning as associated with failure, and this bugs them for ever.”
I came to understand that argument very well. While it gave me no comfort, it did fire my determination to do what Professor Crawford had urged me to do more than a dozen years before – to accept that we had a pretty rotten system. Yet, as I looked across my staffroom I saw that the vast majority of the teachers were highly conscientious, well-qualified and very caring people. How could I rationalise my conviction that while the system was wrong, many of the people working within it were doing the best job they could?
Slowly the reality of the 1980s dawned on me. Economic and social change was proceeding at such a pace that the parents as well as teachers were becoming stressed out. The support the school would have called on from parents only five years previously was fast disappearing. The statistics, not only from England but also across the advanced countries, were starting to tell a grim story.
In his seminal study on adolescents, published in 1984, Mihal Csikszentmihalyi. the Chairman of the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago, noted that, on average American fathers were, at that stage, spending less than 5 minutes a day in solo contact with their adolescent children. As Patricia Hersh states in her study “A Tribe Apart”, published only 3 years ago, “the most stunning change for adolescents today is their aloneness. The adolescents of the 90s are more isolated and more unsupervised than [their predecessors] …..not because they come from parents who don’t care, from schools that don’t care, or from a community that doesn’t value them, but rather because there hasn’t been time for adults to lead them through the process of growing up.”
Hindsight has its limitations, but in 1985 I was already convinced that the problems young people faced as they grew up were at least as much a reflection of the uncertainties in society as a whole, as they were about the often cited “crisis in schools”. 1985 was the year I resigned my headship to enable me to concentrate on getting more people to recognise that good schools alone can never be good enough to equip young people fully for the challenges of modem life. School and Community had to be linked to a renewed search to release the grandeur of human potential.
Twelve months before a very wise American, Ernest Boyer. then President of the Carnegie Foundation, expressed it perfectly: “To blame schools for the rising tide of mediocrity is to confuse symptoms with disease. Schools can rise no higher than the expectations of the communities that surround them.”
Just what are these expectations?