Children grow, both physically and mentally, at different rates; many a child rated as bright or dull has confounded the experts not only in later life but even within a few years, or even months. What all children need is to have their intellectual curiosity so fired up that they will go on learning long after they have left school, so enabling them “to finish the job” of education by themselves1.
Of such thoughts was the vision of the young soldiers who could not wait for the war to end, and thought about raising their own families, or trained to become teachers. The Germans surrendered on May 7th 1945 and Churchill, not waiting for the end of the war in the pacific, called a snap general election. The people cheered Churchill, but they weren’t prepared to vote for him. The British people knew that they had come of age during the war, imperial greatness, as Churchill portrayed it, was no longer of interest to them. They were, however, up for the welfare state2. On August 6th the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and for the first time humanity learnt the chilling truth that it now had the knowledge to destroy itself. Clement Attlee3, a shadowy figure of natural modesty and laconic style, succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister and into the post recently occupied by Butler stepped the diminuative and fiery Ellen Wilkinson4. The very spirit of the Labour Party, Wilkinson had fought her way from a working-class home and gained a place at university through her efforts as a pupil teacher; a one-time communist she became Labour M.P. for Jarrow, and led the famous hunger march of 1936*. A born fighter with a vivid personality, Wilkinson had the task of making the 1944 Education Act work.
Wilkinson had to perform miracles, and numerous convolutions. Not only was the country virtually bankrupt, the teachers disillusioned, but she herself had to deliver a form of secondary education that was not of her devising. She had to make a new vision out of some very old bricks and turn what had been elementary schools into primary schools for children of below eleven, and work with the shabby deal earlier made with teachers which, in exchange for not raising their salaries, had simply lengthened the school holidays from ten to fourteen weeks. All of which necessitated a totally new approach to teaching. For a hundred or more years the simple objective of elementary education (the only education most of the parents understood) was to make the masses literate by defining certain ‘things’ that every child should ‘know’ ─ reading, writing and arithmetic. The things that could be easily measured. No one in 1945 was denying that, whether these youngsters would eventually be working in field, factory or office, such skills were essential, but they wanted to go much further. From Wilkinson down to the youngest teachers they wanted to treat the child’s natural curiosity and imagination as the
starting point for an education that hopefully would shortly go on to the age of sixteen and possibly above.
One man, John Newsome5, the newly appointed thirty-nine-year-old Chief Education Officer for Hertfordshire, quickly recognised that without helping parents to understand what these new primary, technical and Modern schools (as well as new Grammar Schools) were all about, children’s progress would be slow. In 1948 he wrote a wonderful little book, “The Child at School”6, specifically for parents. “Always remember”, he told numerous audiences, “children are children first; they are only school children second”. Progressive teaching, he explained, means getting children involved; making things, moving about, acting, singing, painting, hammering, sewing, mixing, and even shouting! Newsome pioneered the use of pre-fabricated standard units to build new primary schools quickly, so that their open classrooms would fit this new style of children’s learning. He was nothing if not realistic: “The new methods, attractive as they might be, are unfamiliar to most teachers, and they are inherently more difficult, and require greater energy, imagination, skill, judgement and perception in the teachers”7.
Newsome always recognised that school was not necessarily the most important part of what is involved in education. “My own limited experience supports the view that behaviour is determined much more by standards set by the home than by the school… children are influenced much more by the conduct of their parents than by their teachers. Parents can do a great deal to make the child’s task less hard; It’s not so much questioning your child on what he or she did in school today, rather it means doing all you can to see that they are exposed to influences which are likely to assist in their intellectual judgement. Above all it means behaving as if you respect your child’s efforts to find truth, and sympathise with his difficulties; in other words, it means going on with your own education”8.
Education is like a three-legged stool, college lecturers would say as they summed up these ideas which, unlike an ordinary four-legged chair, can find balance however uneven is the floor. The legs represent the home, the school and the community9. If any one of these legs become either too long, or too short, you can’t balance on it. So, be careful; don’t let your schools in the future take over roles which are the natural rights of home or community ─ if you let school get too important you will permanently harm the children in later life”. Sixty years later, in 2006, another chief education officer said, apparently in all innocence, “that three-legged stool is an interesting metaphor. However, I would now name the three legs slightly differently — school, government and possibly the home”10. The audience was well enough versed in the meaning of this thesis to be stunned… as you, the reader, will probably be. An over-schooled society, Newsome knew, is in grave danger of letting the baby go out with the bath water.
Thesis 65: 24th August 2006