The Context


Civilisation can never be taken for granted for it depends on a constant supply of responsible and tough new adolescents to replace the worn-out skills of their elders. Education is a multifaceted process that policy makers in many countries simplify and codify at society’s peril, for to put excessive faith in a highly prescriptive form of schooling inhibits the very creativity and enterprise needed for an uncertain future.

More has been written about education in England in the past 25 years than probably in the previous couple of centuries. There has been much noise, many sweeping statements, too many doubtful justifications, but as yet there is still little clarity and many questions remain unanswered. Today, as in the past, education reform has been more concerned with addressing the obvious symptoms of a problem, rather than addressing the causes of the problems themselves. So much so that the present arrangements in England are so overlaid by layer upon layer of compromises that to cut through to the underlying causes requires a level of knowledge and background that most people simply don’t have.

At a time when parents are confused and teachers-in-training are led to believe that educational history starts in 1988, it is hardly surprising if today’s political innovations are ill-grounded in reality.  The Brilliance of Their Minds will provide an accessible and fascinating account of the growth of human learning potential from the earliest times, up to the way in which the experiences of the last few hundred years have shaped (for good and ill) the English people’s current understanding of the role of schools in the bringing up of young people by fusing historical explanation with the latest findings from neurological and cognitive research.


The Issue


How humans learn – and consequently how children should be brought up – has concerned the elders of society for longer than records have existed. It is referred to as the nature/nurture issue – how much of what we are is a result of what we have been born with and to what extent is this (or can this be) enhanced by the way we are brought up? That there is no easy answer to this question concerned the Greeks as much as it did our Victo­rian ancestors, and is as lively an issue today for the proponents of ‘outcome-based education’ as it is for those who argue for teaching children how to think for themselves.


This programme will show that what is now known from research into how children learn suggests an alter­native way of doing things that would greatly benefit children and society alike. Consequently this programme will aim to equip the public to play a more informed, balanced and influential role in shaping national policies.

The storyline falls into three parts, of which the first concerns English culture and the nature of the brain.


Current thinking about the nurture/nature issue polarises around three beliefs, each of which was articulated at least 2,500 years ago;

i.    Plato taught that the effectiveness of the human brain was all to do with inheritance – those born to be leaders had gold in their blood, those to be administrators, with silver, while the common man (the vast majority) had only iron. To Plato destiny was fixed at the moment of conception.

ii.   Not so, said the ancient Hebrews, it’s all far more dynamic than that, so “do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time”. Learning – to those ancient seers from the desert – was dependent on taking the wis­dom accumulated by your ancestors and (and this was critical to the Jews) adapting it to ever-changing circumstances.

iii.  Half a world away in China, Confucius noted that “man’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.” Confucius reminded all those who would listen that “tell a child and he will forget; show him and he will remember; but let him do, and he will understand”. While any observant parent will readily agree with such an observation, some politicians will dismiss this simply as ‘failed child-centred or progressive dogma’.


In today’s world, do these issues have any value? Are they conflicting explanations or can contem­porary scientific research show how each actually expresses one aspect of what shapes human learn­ing … and what might this mean for pupils at Eton

College, a comprehensive school, a bush school in Tanzania, or in the school districts of British Columbia?

It was only 150 years ago that Darwin proposed in The Origin of Species that all life is a “work in progress” and subject to continuous, long-term adaptations. Only in the last half century (and es­sentially in the last 25 years) has biomedical technol­ogy, linked up with genetics, evolutionary studies, systems thinking and anthropology, to help explain how the human brain has been shaped by the way our ancestors adapted to their environment. It was only in 1962 that Crick and Watson unravelled the double-helix of the DNA molecule, so enabling scientists subsequently to understand how intellec­tual processes, developed by our ancestors hundreds of thousands of generations before, still shape the structure of the brain of a baby born within the past five minutes.

Equipped with such technologies, cognitive sci­entists now see the human brain as being like a veritable archaeological paradise with varying mental predispositions, reflecting adaptations made thousands of generations ago, and subsequently laid one upon another like strata in a geological sequence and – and this is the essence of so much recent research – transmitted genetically to subse­quent generations. For instance, the neural net­works we use for language ride piggy-back on those much older networks earlier developed for vision, meaning that today we find it much easier to think in terms of pictures and stories, rather than abstract theory, while our ability to ‘read faces’ owes more to the development of empathy a million and more years ago, than to the much more recent develop­ment of using language to describe features.


Steadily, scientists are coming to appreci­ate that humans, together with all their likes and dislikes, reflect those deep-seated adaptations made by their early ancestors as they adjusted to ancient environmental problems. These ancient adapta­tions still shape the way we think and act today, and explain our preferred way of doing things. It is this variety of adaptations that account for the complex twists, turns and convolutions in the grain of our brain.

As of now, cognitive scientists see the brain as having all the texture and resilience of a piece of an­cient oak, rather than the uni-dimensional nature of a piece of pre-formed chipboard – you can do almost anything with the oak but only one thing with the chipboard. Our brains are so special just because, in comparison with any other species, they bear the deep imprint of the history of our species and it is that which makes the baby’s brain of today eventu­ally highly adaptable and open to learning. We are enormously empowered by ancestral experience but we consistently under-perform when driven to live in ways that are utterly uncongenial to such inher­ited traits and predispositions.

From this perspective, most of the schools that today’s children attend were designed when prevail­ing cultures assumed, as had the Romans, that children were born to be taught rather than to learn. Which is why, for so many children, the wonder of learning has been replaced by the tedium of trying to remember what they were told by somebody else about something that really didn’t interest them very much in the first place. St. Augustine describing his time in school in 325AD expressed what hundreds of thousands of pupils, over the centuries, have subsequently felt, “Oh my God, how I suffered. What torments and humiliations I expe­rienced. I was told that because I was a mere boy, I had to obey my teachers in everything. I was sent to school. I did not understand what I was taught. I was beaten for my ignorance. I never found out what use school was supposed to be.


The first book ever written in English about edu­cation was The Scholemaster by Roger Ascham in 1570 attempted to rectify this. Ascham argued against the excessive use of fear as a motivation for learning; he encouraged the development of “hard wits” not “quick wits”, but then added a most curi­ous third injunction: “more is learned in one hour of theoretical study than in 20 hours of learning through experience”. To the English Protestant teachers it was their responsibility to censor what a child learned for fear, wrote Ascham, that pupils might rush off to Rome and while studying classi­cal literature be corrupted by the sexually-explicit statues and mosaics then being rescued by the archaeologists! In so doing, Ascham set the school­teacher and the classroom apart from the experience of ordinary men who had to adjust their lives to the requirements of everyday experience.

Three quarters of a Century later John Milton, poet and political advisor to Oliver Cromwell, went much further and argued for a national system of education that would fit a child to perform “justly, skilfully and magnanimously”. He saw this as essential for a democratic society and proposed a junior school in every village and an Academy in every town giving parity of esteem to both theoretical and vocational skills. Believing education was primarily for the public good rather than individual gain, Milton proposed that this should be funded directly by local taxes. But it was not to be, for the death of Cromwell and the Restoration of Charles II delayed any such policies for over 200 years.

Although less than half of the population could read at the beginning of the 18th Century, the widespread practice of apprenticeship and the belief in self-help meant that the English knew well how to work collaboratively and solve real life problems. Recent findings in cultural anthropology, neurology and cognitive science suggest that those tightly integrated communities, where individual and collective needs were met by local endeavour, were the most refined manifestations of how the human species has adapted to its environment, anywhere, since the beginning of time.

We now know that it was the near universal experience of apprenticeship that created the Industrial Revolution, which owed little to formal schooling. Few academics, and certainly no schoolteachers at the time speculated on why it was that some Eng­lishmen from the most obscure backgrounds with little or no formal schooling – like John Harrison who invented the marine chronometer, or Thomas Newcombe who made a steam pump to lift water in 1712, achieved more from direct experience than did their school pupils learn from theory.

Attempting to bridge that divide between the clas­sical version of education and the apprenticeship model of learning, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his son in 1746, “do not imagine that the knowledge which I so much recommend to you, is confined to books, pleasing, useful and necessary as that knowl­edge is for the knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the word, and not in a closet. Books alone will never teach it to you; but they will suggest many things to your observation which might other­wise escape you”.

The Industrial Revolution, while making England phenomenally rich, destroyed that earlier social cohesion that had created the genius of the applied craftsmen. Robust individualism was replaced by an unthoughtful de-motivated and unskilled mob of people ready only for the life of the factory. Personal responsibility and a sense of pride were destroyed and the aimless grandchildren of the men who had created such industrial wealth were left to roam the streets as hooligans. Seeing in them a challenge to public order many Victorians contributed to the building of some 15,000 elementary schools which delivered a basic education that would spiritually fit a child to go eventually to heaven, and in the short-term (satisfying sponsors) giving them just enough basic skills to earn a living.

Newly-rich Victorians rarely acknowledged that their wealth owed more to the creative skills of craftsmen, as ever it did to cheap coal, iron or the new ports and canals. Pleased to agree with Plato that such privilege was somehow ‘in their blood’, these entrepreneurs were determined upon their own social progression. Rather than equipping their sons with those practical skills on which they had prospered, they preferred to seek a form of education, provided by the new so-called Public Schools, that would forever separate their sons from trade, and induct them into the ranks of the gentry so creating “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers of different planets” (Benjamin Disraeli).

Nowhere were the extremes greater than in the schooling available to different kinds of children. Whilst self interest drove the development of the Public Schools, Parliament reluctantly accepted by 1870 that the churches alone could no longer provide sufficient schools for the ever increasing population. Unwilling to take the full responsibility onto its own shoulders, Parliament legislated to empower communities willing to set up locally-elected School Boards and levy taxes upon all households for the appropriate education of all children within their community.

These Board Schools inspired a real sense of community responsibility (something the current Prime Minister envies and calls ‘Big Society’). Within 30 years 2,500 School Boards were educating almost as many children as the 15,000 Church Schools. With the advantage of being supported by the community to raise taxes if they wanted to broaden the curriculum, by 1900 some Board Schools were even offering all-through schooling up to 16, regardless of parental income. Here it seemed was the realisation of Milton’s dream – strengthening the entire community through improving the quality of children’s education.

Just before that, in 1859, the publication of The Origin of Spe­cies shook Western thinking – science, religion and philosophy (and eventually education) – to its roots by arguing that all species, humans included, were simply “works in progress”, prototypes in the process of being refined by experi­ence. The medical profession leapt at such a theory and subsequently used it as the basis for modern medicine so giving humanity a ‘user guide’ to the operation of the body. Darwin was initially nervous about extending his theory to the operation of the human brain, but concluded his book with a chal­lenge to the newly-established subject of psychol­ogy by claiming that “this will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental process by gradation (evolution). Light will then be thrown on the origins of man and his history.

Psychology which involved (or should have involved) all those in education just did not know how to deal with the principles of evolution. As a formal discipline, psychology had only been established two years earlier as a hybrid of philosophy (a much-respected ancient discipline) and physiology (a new white-coat laboratory-based subject that concentrated on the functioning of animal muscles) – so creating a most uncomfortable partnership. Lacking any technology able to understand, at a molecular level, how the brain might work, psychology turned its back on Darwin, claiming the brain to be the same now as it had been in the past and would be in the future. To psychologists, the brain was simply a mysteri­ous ‘black box’, there was nothing in it that had not been put there by external agencies during the individual’s own life.

Scientific understandings about the nature of human learning just did not enter into the thinking of the Victorian establishment who saw in the egalitarian Board Schools a challenge to the Victorian social order whose touchstone was its belief in the newly invented Public School for the elite.

Consequently in 1902, with the support of both the church schools and the headmasters of Public Schools, an Education Act was proposed to abolish the School Boards, limit the raising of taxes to central Government, and restrict public expenditure to under 14 year olds alone. The Liberals fought back vigorously, arguing for the extension of the elected School Board system, the establishment of all-through schools right across the country, and the continuation of funding through local taxation. The debate was long and vehement and Herbert Asquith, then deputy Liberal leader soon to become Prime Minister, warned Parliament that if it voted against his proposition “you’ll put an end to the existence of the best and the most beneficial educational agencies that ever existed in this country”.

But the Establishment got its way and locally elected Schools Boards were abolished; publicly funded education was limited to below the age of 14, except for youngsters attending Grammar Schools, but the Public Schools were free to go entirely their own way. The early enthusiasm to support local education turned badly sour as the London-based bureaucracies took over the control of schools.

From today’s political perspective, much of the responsibility for England’s current educational dilemma goes back to the 1902 Act. This has to be properly understood. So bemused had Victorians become by the industrial and commercial achievements of the late 19th Century, they were blinded to the changing world around them. “England must wake up commercially” the Prince of Wales had told an unbelieving conference the year before, while a leading economist complained that our commercial supremacy “had bred a totally unacceptable lethargy, complacency and self-satisfaction”. Serious commentators, for the first time arguing the case for what would now be called the political Left, were beginning to recognise what Milton had said 200 years before, that a country’s future depended on the education of the mass of the population.

That Establishment itself having experienced a classical education that had virtually excluded any of the sciences meant that for just over a hundred years (up to the 1970s when the oldest of today’s teachers were being trained) both the psychologists, and the politicians they should have been advising, completely ignored any suggestion that the brain might be a product of evolutionary processes.

Two simplistic, semi-scientific theories gripped Englishmen’s attention in the first part of the 20th Century. The first was the Behaviourists’ claim that nothing which could not be studied and measured ever existed, and that scientists could subsequently define the exact nature of every input which, if properly delivered, could produce the perfect child as defined by them in advance. The management of external motivation, and the con­struction of a closed environment, was the essence of behaviourism – the child’s progress was seen to be totally dependent on the brilliance of the teacher, and had absolutely nothing to do with its inheritance or personal experiences. There was one exception, and that was the expectation running very strongly in the 1930s by the Psychometricians that a way could be found of developing tests that could so assess the natural ‘quality’ of an individual child’s brain that such tests could predict a child’s innate intelligence as young as the age of 11.

These two ideas were largely contradictory but, lacking the technologies to study the brain ob­jectively, they persuaded themselves that the brain was born without any structural preferences to learn in particular ways. Consequently, educa­tional policy-makers claimed that these tests were of such diagnostic accuracy that they could detect the 25% of children deemed (following the teaching of Plato) to be capable of receiving a classical educa­tion; the next 15% fitted for technical skills, while the remainder should go for a limited number of years to a Modern school as a precursor to manual employment.

This was the essence of the 1944 Education Act which in almost all respects continued the policy of 40 years before which Herbert Asquith had so fought against of destroying the all-through school in favour of splitting schooling into primary and secondary. To make secondary schools financially viable the 1944 Act took three years of funding away from the old elementary schools so leaving the newly defined primary schools struggling to fit into six years what previously they had done in seven. Furthermore the almost uncritical acceptance of the validity of the intelligence tests as a way of defining which youngsters were most worthy of a quality education, meant that priority was now given to funding secondary schools more generously than primary schools.

One further theory has to be understood. The almost total collapse of apprenticeship in the late nineteenth century left young adolescents bereft of any useful work to do. Gilbert S Hall, President of the American Psychological Association, claimed in 1904 that adolescence was a dangerous aberration (something which should not be happening) from which children needed to be protected for their own good – that protection, he argued strongly, should involve keeping adolescents in school for ever longer and giving them so much work to do that this adolescent urge to do their own thing could be bypassed.

In all this lies the origin of today’s English model of schooling; age-related classes assumed to be progressing at a uniform rate; skills and knowledge delivered via subject-specific disciplines; a custodial role for social development confused with a degree of willingness with which a child accepted the ethos of the school; more funds allocated to the education of older pupils leaving the youngest children to be taught in the largest classes; the increased marginalisation of home and commu­nity as an integral component of learning; the reten­tion of teenagers in school to ‘save’ them from the turmoil of adolescence, and the training of teachers being more concerned with the preparation of sub­ject specific instruction than with the development of pedagogic strategies informed by philosophy and the research into the nature of human learning.

Numerous studies in very many countries show that the traditional factory model of schooling is incompat­ible with the idea that students are personally involved in constructing meaning so that schooling must be active, and recognise that children learn in different ways and at different rates.

That dysfunction has been given scientific objec­tivity by the findings of recent research:

  • The brain is driven by curiosity and the need to make sense of all its many experiences.
  • Intelligence is more than just a general capacity to learn; it is shrewdness, cleverness and knowledge all rolled together with emotional intuition, balance and a strong sense of practicality. Essentially it is about cognitive and emotional self-regulation, the ability to apply ‘intelligence’ in a self-reflective and meaningful way.
  • The brain is empowered by the experience of its ancestors with ‘predispositions’ opening up like windows of opportunity at those stages of life which evolution has found are the most appropriate to the individual’s development.
  • Children’s search for meaning starts very young. It is those children who are already keen to make sense of what matters in their own pri­vate lives, who come to formal schooling keen to use whatever it can offer them to help their personal objectives. Not the other way around. It is intrinsic rather than extrinsic.
  • The adolescent brain is a critical evolutionary ad­aptation that has built up over thousands of genera­tions, and is essential to our species’ survival. Ado­lescence forces young people in every generation to think beyond their own self-imposed limitations, and exceed their parent’s aspirations. Adolescence is an opportunity, not a threat.
  • The brain works best when it is building on what it already knows; when it is working in complex, situated circumstances, and when it accepts the significance of what it is doing. It is at its best when it is exercised in highly challenging but low-threat environments.
  • Given the inherent limitations of schooling it seems essential for a child to have an intellectual life outside school. Thus equipped, the child is in a posi­tion to use schooling as a source of learning oppor­tunities without being drawn into short-cut strate­gies that work well for handling school-based tasks but often lead nowhere in the life-long development of expertise.
  • Learning is an immensely complex business, so, to put faith in a highly directive, prescriptive cur­riculum, is to so go ‘against the grain of the brain’, that it inhibits creativity and enterprise……the very skills needed in the complex, diverse economy and community for which we need to prepare our children.

Cognitive scientists urge that learning occurs when experience is mixed with reflection; Learning is not time-out from productive activity; learning is the very heart of productive activity”. Within a cognitive apprenticeship both the task, and the process of achieving it, are made highly vis­ible from the beginning. The student understands where they are going and why. Learners have access to expertise in action.
They watch each other, get to understand the incremental stages and establish benchmarks against which to measure their prog­ress.

It is what Confucius understood intuitively when he advocated going from “telling” to “show­ing” to eventually “understanding”.

In a most significant piece of research by the Santa Fe Institute nearly 20 years ago it was stated,

The method people naturally employ to acquire knowledge is largely unsupported by traditional classroom practice. The human mind is better equipped to gather information about the world by operating within it than by reading about it, hearing lectures on it, or studying abstract models of it. Nearly every­one would agree that experience is the best teacher, but what many fail to realise is that experience may well be the only teacher.” (Santa Fe Institute 1994)

The second part of the storyline: England 2012

Recent research in the biomedical, cognitive and behavioural sciences confirms that it was the combination of public and private integrity, combined with competent inventors at every stage, which originally propelled the English into leading the world into the Industrial Revolution.  A hundred or so years later such a ‘self-help’ philosophy, linked to a strong moral imperative, created an extraordinary worldwide economic and social network based on the confidence that “an Englishman’s word is his bond.” But another century on – today’s world – the ever dominant need for ‘efficiency’ to stimulate profits led to the scientific management of work, resulting in employers paying better money to workers who simply followed instructions, rather than to those who sought to be creative in their work. In this cultural change which dumbed-down craftsmen-like skills, lie many of the roots of education and social difficulties.

So persistent have been the siren calls of Parliamentarians for young people to concentrate specifically on those skills that will enable them to excel in whatever market place they find themselves, that several generations have lost that sense of collaborative endeavour and inquisitiveness which has to underpin strong communities.

Without regenerating such social and moral energy it is hard to see how any Government will be able to balance the social and personal expectations of the people with the need for a successful economy.

There are at least six underlying realities, or assumptions, within some aspects of English society, that make such a transformation of education difficult. They include:

  1. Significant sections of English society seem to have lost any sense of the importance of local democratic involvement in education.
  2. Politicians can all too readily dismiss intellectual research as unnecessary “fluff”.
  3. The relationship between central and local government has deteriorated badly over many years.
  4. The public have come to assume that teachers en masse are simply left-wing trendies.
  5. A strong independent schools sector (which has never attempted to provide for all children in all kinds of environments) has led very many politicians to think that every school should stand alone.
  6. An unquestioning acceptance of the value of the ‘free market’ has yet to come to terms with ‘slow death’ can all too easily leave failing schools in impossible predicaments.

For many years a balanced education was likened to a three-legged stool that could balance on any surface, however rough, providing the legs (in this metaphor being the home, the school and the community) were of the same length. Today many people have a very different understanding of the kind of community that should underpin a civil society – to them community appears to be made up of employers who define the desired outcomes for education; the parents who are the customers, and the school which is the delivery agent. By such criteria 80% or more of the population just don’t count (except as rate-payers with a vote every five years) – they/we are apparently bystanders with nothing to offer. Is that really the case, because this seems far removed from Milton’s concept of a functional civil society?


Now in 2012 it should at last be politically feasible to draw together four strands of Coalition policy – Big Society, Regionalism, Local Financial Responsibility, and the structure of Education – to open up presently untapped opportunities to create a nation of responsible, thoughtful and enterprising people.  A successful  melding of currently disconnected Departmental policies will however require a better appreciation by all involved of the dynamics of human learning, of the motivators of behaviour, the origins of social capital 2 and the functioning of civil society 3 .

Such a joining-up of policy needs to happen urgently across the whole country.          But it won’t happen anywhere unless government, communities, and the private sector work in partnership. By pulling together all our resources in a spontaneous, voluntary covenant – homes, communities, schools and voluntary associations – the UK could transform the way society nurtures its young people. This would galvanize national life by releasing the personal creativity of millions of people to create and support a functional democracy both able to look after itself and make informed judgements over complex issues, and subsequently stick by the outcomes.

Under the pressure of contemporary life weakened communities have done young people – and themselves – a grave disservice by separating the world of learning from the world of work and its immediate concerns. A joined-up education system would connect these now separate ‘worlds’ by capitalizing on the following philosophies:


  • Because the way we are treated while growing up largely determines the way in which what we are born with turns us into what we are, it is the combined influence of home, school and community (not formal schooling alone) that creates men and women capable of doing new things well, not simply repeating what earlier generations have already done.
  • Quality education is everything to do with teachers, not much to do with structures and very little to do with buildings. Productive teacher-pupil relationships are based on explanation, on talking things through, and seeing issues in their entirety. To achieve this teachers need both technical subject knowledge and considerable expertise in both pedagogy and child development, combined with the avuncular skill of brilliant story-tellers.
  • As children grow older and more independent the influence of families and teachers decreases, while the influence of peer group and community increases. Appreciating the evolutionary significance of adolescence demands that communities provide far more opportunities for young people to extend their learning in a hands-on manner, either as formal apprentices or perfecting their skills by working alongside members of the community beyond the classroom setting.
  • Current research in the learning sciences (refer back to page 6) shows the critical need for young learners increasingly to work things out for themselves and become less dependent upon teacher-moderated instruction.  This demands a reversal of the current policy which allocates more funds to the education of older children, resulting in the largest class sizes being in the earliest years of education, and the smallest at the top of secondary education for 17 and 18 year olds. These older students should have been empowered by their earlier experience to better manage their own learning, without so much dependence on teacher input.
  • The transition from primary to secondary school at the age of 11 frequently inhibits many bright pupils who are unnecessarily held back, and damages late developers who are promoted when not yet ready.

So rapid has been the collapse of social capital in the past 30 years that an increasingly individualistic culture has robbed communities of that which once gave them their vitality and made their pavements, town squares and backyards the locations for intergenerational discourse. It was here that children learnt intuitively and spontaneously the interdependence of learning, to working and living.  It is social capital, not institutional arrangements, that bind people together in their daily lives, and which is so essential in the future. This proposal revolves around the premise that through a joined-up education system, social capital and the fundamentals of civil society would be reinvigorated, and make Big Society a reality.


What needs to happen?


The reality is that the premium the UK’s model of learning places on secondary over primary education, and of the school over the home, is nothing other than upside-down and inside-out.  A full transformation, reversing this model of learning, would take many years.  However, an approach based around carefully selected pilot communities could deliver tangible benefits, much more affordably, within as little as three years.  With the immediate benefits this would demonstrate, it would be much easier to mobilise many more communities.

Ten Pilot Communities (representing one third of one percent of all the schools in the country, with a cost of change element in each community being an additional 10% per annum, decreasing to 0% by the 7th year), selected to reflect a variety of socio-economic conditions, and based on already discrete communities, could pioneer both a revitalised education system and a vibrant demonstration of civil society itself.  Each would need:

  • Committed champions, such as eminent citizens, representatives of professional and commercial interests, leaders of faith communities, as well as locally and nationally elected politicians,
  • A School Board, with Trustees directly elected for the sole purpose of devising and administering the most appropriate education for all children within their community,
  • Access to funds to support the change process.  Funds could be raised directly through a local tax levy (local taxation with full local responsibility), or by offering tax relief to local contributors (both individual and corporate, with significant contributors encouraged to participate in governance).


Intrinsic to the success of such communities is the incorporation of the following ideas:


  • The work in the pilot communities has to start with a reconsideration of how learning takes place, the relationship of children to their communities, of the responsibilities of communities to ‘their’ children. This ‘responsibility’ would appear in the mobilisation of the community to provide more in and out of school support to what they would increasingly come to regard as ‘their young people’.
  • A quality education involves far more than simply producing pupils able to pass formal exams; rather it is to equip every child to become a fully-functional adult, able to do wisely and responsibly whatever it will be that each individual – as a functional citizen – has to do.
  • As human development involves the growth of the emotions, the intellect and social sensitivity, so the role of the school has always to be seen in parallel with that of the home and the community, for it is social capital, not institutional arrangements, that bind people’s creativity and expectations together.
  • The ability to learn, and keep on learning, is the critical skill for the future. “Learning is not something that requires time-out from productive activity, learning is at the very heart of productive activity.”(Shoshana Zuboff, 1988) Teachers must constantly be empowering children to understand how to manage their own learning.


So willing would good teachers be to support this that, even within three years, the initial results of such pilot projects would encourage many other communities to embark on the same process themselves. The projects would act as highly visible catalysts to spark nationwide replication.


What Parliamentarians must consider:


  • National survival depends more upon the development of the people’s applied common sense (wits), and their ability to pull together within communities comprised of people with disparate skills and interests, than it does on abstract intellectual knowledge.
  • While Britain prides itself on being a democracy it frequently forgets that such a fragile concept cannot flourish unless each new generation is well-nurtured in the affairs of the nation and of the mind, and appropriately inducted into the responsibilities of adulthood.
  • Parliament serves the country best when it creates the conditions for people to put their personal creativity into action, for the good of the whole, rather than sectional interest. It would be too much to expect of any government to attempt to pilot this project nationally without first testing it out rigorously in some pilot projects, and this is what is needed if the creativity of ordinary people is to be released, and challenged.


The measure of the ultimate success of this transformation would be a national recognition by all that it is the community which has to be the unit of education, not – as is currently seen to be the case – the individual school. It will only be in those communities in which school, home and community are really truly connected that civil society will best operate, and where children will learn from the nursery the value of that interdependence. By progressively ‘front-loading’ the system (the reversal of the present upside-down system of funding), and fully involving the voluntary contribution of home and community (so reversing the inside-out part) this would result in young people being infinitely better educated, far more able to stand on their own two feet, and more responsible for their neighbours, at no more expense than at present.


[1]  “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices both public and private, of peace and war” (John Milton 1642).
The Big Society is not some fluffy add on to the more gritty and important subjects…you learn about responsibility and how to live [when] in harmony with others” (David Cameron May 2011).

“‘Social Capital’ refers to those tangible substances- good will, fellowship, sympathy, and mutual support that enables a community as a whole to benefit by the cooperation of all its parts” (Robert Putnam 2011).

3  Civil Society is about the quality of human relationships implied by covenant, not contract, as in when John F Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In a “covenantal relationship, no amount of shoulder shrugging, no anguished appeal to politicians, no recourse to blaming other peoples inertia, can ever excuse the knowledgeable individual’s responsibility to get up and do it for themselves” (Jonathan Sacks 2007).


The third part of the storyline: British Columbia and the x-factor

Over the past decade several English speaking countries, have focused their reforming strategies on ‘breaking down’ the old structural arrangements in the hope that this shakeup will induce reform right across vast systems. The alternative is to concentrate on the minutiae of improving the personal motivation of individuals at all levels so as to ‘build up’ from the bottom a widespread sense of community ownership, to create the energy for continuous improvement1.

The report found (not surprisingly) that the larger the unit to be reformed, the more difficult it is to invest in a ‘building up’ strategy, yet it is only by investing in the  intrinsic motivation of individuals in each community that entire systems develop the capacity for continuous development. Most regrettably England and the United States have progressively removed the control of education from local communities, thereby directly being answerable to large scale national directives, applying the top-down, ‘break down’ model of development.

The Brilliance of Their Minds aims to help the English find a way out of the ever deeper hole they have dug, by concluding with a study of the Canadian province of British Columbia. This province has progressively reinforced local community ownership as a way of reaching standards of achievement already well in advance of the English and United States systems. With only 4.5 million people one twelfth of the population of the United Kingdom but scattered over the land area three times that size – British Columbia has no difficulty in finding sufficient people to stand as trustees of the 60 school districts, each administered with apparently greater efficiency than England can do with its ever more centralised government.

In placing its faith in local decision-making British Columbia is far better able to innovate than is possible in more congested England, where economies of scale too often prove to be a dangerous illusion. Twenty years before the English established a tripartite system of secondary schooling in 1944, British Columbia had already started to adopt John Dewey’s belief that “education is life, not a mere preparation for life”.

Within such a balance between Provincial oversight, the autonomy of locally-elected school boards, and a long tradition of professional leadership by its superintendents, British Columbia has developed an amazing variety of innovative practices;

  • structured apprenticeships developed between the individual schools and their local communities,
  • an amazing array of early-learning arrangements that don’t separate the young child from its home,
  • such quality learning experiences in the early years that pupils are ready and enthusiastic to undertake, in their senior years, a combination of distance-learning programmes combined with a reduced number of taught classes,
  • a reduction in the school week from five days to four (somewhat longer) days to enable pupils to undertake more out of school activities and to provide the time for teachers to monitor their pupils work better.

All of which leads to greater institutional flexibility e.g. an individual high school can, and does, set up alternative mini schools for particularly challenging students. Parents and others wishing to set up alternative arrangements for schooling (such as Montessori or faith schools) can have, after reasonable discussions with the Province, up to 90 % of their costs funded by Government.

This has resulted, over the years, in many of their young people achieving remarkable results (BC would stand about 8th in the PISA tables if they were separated from the rest of Canada, while England is currently in the middle-twenties). Interestingly their students are sufficiently well-educated to be active, intelligent critics of their own education.

Significantly students in British Columbia are so close to the challenges posed by environmental issues that they are acutely aware of how an ‘economic expansion agenda’ runs head into environmental degradation. An ‘Underground Curriculum’ (shades of Ivan Illich) attracts many postgraduate teacher-training students at the University of Victoria whose main criticism is that “we have been screwed up by the vacuousness of the curriculum that we were exposed to and now (you teacher-trainers) you are attempting to train us to implement such a curriculum that we quite

frankly don’t believe in and impose this on the next generation”. They are, the Initiative anticipates, the tip of the emerging generation, having much in common with the ‘Occupy’ movement.

The Minister of Education in British Columbia, the Honourable George Abbott, has pledged his personal support to whatever is needed to demonstrate all of this, backed up by the resources of their entire Ministry (which could lead to the involvement of CBC).

The English could also develop the brilliance of its children’s minds if they heeded the message of this programme and started to build the system up from the bottom by investing in the intrinsic motivation of whole communities, rather than being constrained by its draconian ‘command and control’ methodologies.


1. see Professor Michael Fullan, OECD; ‘Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Educational Reform’


Explanatory note – this Specification for the documentary can be supported by a draft script, already prepared, as a guide to further expand on these issues and, in particular, their relationships. Given the complexity of the argument this story is best produced through the medium of television, rather than radio.

Statistics appeal to politicians and policy-makers who make much use of the PISA rankings recorded every three years. In ‘Britain’s got talent deficit’, the Guardian wrote on the 31st October 2011,


Who’s top in maths until the next round of assessment in 2012?      China-Shanghai by miles, with Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan clustered behind; The UK is 28th, the US 31st.


And in reading? Shanghai, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong all over again, with only gallant little Finland, in third place, to disrupt this tale of eastern promise. UK: 25; USA: 17.


Science?               Japan joins Finland in the top five, but China-Shanghai is far and away top, with the UK at 16th and America in the 21st spot.


Are the samples representative? Yes they are.

Does Finland do so well because it’s a small, homogenous nation that puts teacher standards and teacher pay high on its agenda? Yes again.


So perhaps we can’t expect the US or the UK, with its wide spread of immigrants, languages and backgrounds, to do anything close to as well … Except that Canada – huge, very mixed, multilingual Canada – is in Pisa’s top 10 under all three categories.”

Nb. While the expectations for this programme are rightly enormous, it is highly unlikely that anyone will achieve the brilliance that Bronowski demonstrated in his epic series ‘The Ascent of Man’. But that does not daunt us, for this is very important stuff.  Nor should the observation that Bronowski brilliantly activated an audience better accustomed to such thinking 40 years ago than would be a modern audience. Whether or not that is true the Initiative is firmly convinced that a new thoughtful audience of young people is rapidly emerging who will be well able to link the nature of education with their awareness of the problems created by the over-exploitation of the planet, resulting from an economic model in which they have little confidence. Properly activated by the message in this documentary there could be no limit to the influence of these ideas. After all it is the world such young people will shortly take control of…  and to help them start right now they need the best possible plan to the issues involved.