Jesus is the Elephant

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“If you tell people not to think about elephants, they will think about elephants. And, in US schools, Jesus is the elephant.”

Last Friday, the TES published my longest US feature yet: “The Godless Delusion”. The piece muses on the fact that American schools are most definitely not allowed to involve religion. Perversely, school leaders spend waaay longer than necessary worrying about it.

Many of the case studies described in the piece were raised in an ethics class I took last semester here at the University of Missouri. It’s amazing the cultural differences in such things. During one class we read a case study about a 17 year old student who was strip searched by the school principal and his assistant. The student had been watched for a few days due to an “unusual bulge” in his trousers (the case studies words, not mine). At the end of the school day he was therefore prevented from getting on to the school bus and instead escorted to the principal’s office. The principal called the student’s mother to ask permission for a pat-down. She refused. The principal therefore escorted the student to the changing room, where he locked the door (apparently for the students’ privacy) and then instructed the pupil take off all his clothes, in full view of both male staff members, before putting on his sports kit.
The lecturer stopped at the end of the case study: “Who felt that this was inappropriate?”
My hand shot up. A few other hands see-sawed. Most stayed down.
Not only did the people in the room not see it as problematic (in fact several defended it), but the Supreme Court’s conclusion on this case was that while the student’s right to privacy was contravened, the school district nevertheless imposed no punishment on the teachers. No disciplinary, no nothing. Mind-boggling.
Thankfully, this article is a little more gentle – looking as it does at US nativities and the Plastic Reindeer rule- but I hope it is still interesting. It certainly was to write.

Greatness: A List of Education Secretaries

Over the summer my main research project is on the biographies of education secretaries. I’m planning to apply the framework from Dean Simonton’s Greatness: Who Makes History and Whyto see if the best remembered among the group conform to his theories. For reference, here is a list of my summer companions

May 45 Feb 47 Ellen Wilkinson Labour
Feb 47 Nov 51 George Tomlinson Labour
Nov 51 Oct 54 Florence Horsburgh Labour
Oct 54 Jan 57 David Eccles Conservative
Jan 57 Sep 57 Viscount Hailsham Conservative
Sep 57 Oct 59 Geoffrey Lloyd Conservative
Oct 59 July 62 David Eccles Conservative
July 62 Mar 64 Edward Boyle Conservative
Apr 64 Oct 64 Quintin Hogg Conservative
Oct 64 Jan 65 Michael Stewart Labour
Jan 65 Aug 67 Anthony Crosland Labour
Aug 67 Apr 68 Patrick Walker Labour
Apr 68 Jun 70 Edward Short Labour
Jun 70  Mar 74 Margaret Thatcher Conservative
Mar 74 Jun 75 Reginald Prentice Labour
Jun 75 Sep 76 Fred Mulley Labour
Sep 76 May 79 Shirley Williams Labour
May 79 Sep 81 Mark Carlisle Conservative
Sep 81 May 86 Keith Joseph Conservative
May 86 Jul 89 Ken Baker Conservative
Jul 89 Nov 90 John McGregor Conservative
Nov 90 Apr 92 Ken Clarke Conservative
Apr 92 Jul 94 John Patten Conservative
July 94 May 97 Gillian Shephard Conservative
May 97 Jun 01 David Blunkett Labour
Jun 01 Oct 02 Estelle Morris Labour
Oct 02 Dec 04 Charles Clarke Labour
Dec 04 May 06 Ruth Kelly Labour
May 06 Jun 07 Alan Johnson Labour
Jun 07 May 10 Ed Balls Labour
May 10 Michael Gove Conservative

"It's Not About The Money": Why did so many 'Progressive Schools' of the 1920s close down?

On Saturday I presented at the Research & Creative Activities Forum here at the University of Missouri. It’s a competitive forum for graduate students to present their research and the whole day was mind-blowing. Quite unusually I was presenting a history paper and so was in the ‘Humanities & Literature’ group so felt massively out of depth but enjoyed learning about a gamut of research running from the origin of the word ‘Cajun’ through to the death of French Revolutionaries in the 19th century.
My paper presented a counter to the argument that lack of money was the main reason why schools opened by English progressives in the 1920s had mostly closed by the 1950s. Having trawled through the archives of the schools’ leaders, and analysing a variety of biography and autobiographies, I am of the opinion that the leaders used the schools to develop their careers and/or their personal (often romantic) relationships. Over time the reality of the schools, particularly the financial difficulties but also issues with student behaviour and staff recruitment, meant the leaders were no longer getting what they sought from the school.
Where schools did manage to stay open through troubled time they generally did so because the leader of the school only had one identity – they were a teacher – and they were usually fairly indifferent towards their familial relationships. (In this presentation AS Neill is used as the exemplar of just such a person).
The aim is to get the journal article for this research completed in the next month and then hopefully I will be able to share the full piece once published.

Teaching Winston Churchill

I note the Daily Mail has led on the story of the new National Curriculum with a triumphant gloat that Churchill is back on the agenda.
I am also chuffed that Churchill is back, but not for the same reasons as the Daily Mail. If the National Curriculum is really as ‘forward looking’ as is suggested in the article then I can only assume that this means we are no longer just going to get a picture of Churchill as the glorious war-time leader who looks like this:

But maybe we will also get to see representations of his mental illness, like this:

After all, Churchill was not ashamed of his bipolar disorder which he wrote and spoke about with reasonable regularity, and nor should he be. Furthermore many historians have now argued that it contributed a great deal to both his greatness and – at times – his moments of awfulness.  And I hope those moments of awfulness are also included in this new ‘history of Britain’. For if children are to be ‘taught of Churchill’ it should be done wholly and properly. So let us hope that alongside the triumph of WWII they are also taught of Churchill’s part in the Gallipoli Campaign, his disasterous turn as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his views on workers during the General Strike, and then also that he went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature – demonstrating that leading armies is not the only way to be famous or successful.
If these aspects of his character are not given equal credence, and we allow the National Curriculum to uncritically idolise someone with such a complex potted history – & who could teach so much that will overturn misperceptions of mental illness – then the new National Curriculum is being no less neglectful than the last.  It is rare that I agree with the Daily Mail, but on this one we are united, just as long as their picture of Winston Churchill is in agreement with mine.

Why Being Wealthy Doesn't Mean You Automatically Have More Aspirations Or More Life Choices

One of the things guaranteed to annoy me is when people assume that poor children all have low aspirations, and that ‘choice’ is something only preserved for the ‘middle and upper class’ children.  Life just isn’t that simple.
Reviewing more works from Dora Russell – one of Bertrand Russell’s wives and founder of a 1920s ‘progressive’ school – I came across this sobering quote:

“Moreover, she knew that even for children at a school like Beacon Hill, the possibilities for freedom were limited precisely because they were privileged children. The child of an architect, for example, would encounter barriers if he wanted to be a carpenter” (from Deborah Gorham’s wonderful paper – “Dora & Bertrand Russell and Beacon Hill School)

In some cases this won’t be true; some wealthier families will use their social networks and monetary capital to enable their child to take an ‘alternative’ path – maybe becoming an artist, or DJ, or as mentioned in the article: a carpenter.  Limits on choice are not the preserve of the poor though. For each time I’ve heard a poorer parent say they don’t think their child needs to go to university I’ve also heard a wealthier one say that their child must go, even if they really really don’t want to.  In fact, I’d say, that second situation is more common.
When I was young my dad would say there was no point having a big house because you can only rest your head on one pillow.  I’d point out that at least in the big house you’d have a choice about which pillow to lay your head on. However, if someone you love (& whose values you want to emulate) tells you only one type of pillow is acceptable, then that big house – no matter how large or great its array of choices might be – becomes absolutely, even tragically, superfluous.  Education should provide us with as many spaces as possible where we can rest our heads; anything less, and we’re selling our children short.

Review of "Progressive School" Movement – Summerhill, Malting House & Beacon Hill

One of my first projects here at the University of Missouri is reviewing historical documents of the ‘Progressive School’ movement, particularly the ‘famous’ schools of the 1920s advocated by celebrities (or people who went on to become celebrities). The intial review of documents includes correspondence, minutes, prospectuses and applications for Malting House (Susan Isaacs Jacobs, Summerhill (AS Neill) and Beacon Hill (Bertrand & Dora Russell).

The most extensive collection so far is the amazing online archive of Dora Russell’s work.  Though only married to Bertrand Russell for a short time she kept the name ‘Dora Russell’ throughout her life and enjoyed an incredible career in writing and political activism after Beacon Hill closed.

The question that interests me is this: Given that all three opened to great fanfare, with similarly passionate, intelligent leaders and middle class pupils, why did two of them fail so quickly? And how did Summerhill, perhaps the most unlikely of all, survive until the present day?

I’m interested in this question because the current focus on new schools talks as if opening a new building, with new leaders and good intentions is inevitably going to bring a lasting and positive change.  Sometimes this is true; but almost as often, it is not. Are there warning signs?  Are there patterns that can tell us which new schools are going to achieve well? Because if there aren’t then a policy based entirely on opening new schools could be nothing more than a blind stab at educational improvement.

As AS Neill says in this letter to Russell after the school folded:”Oceans of new ‘progressive’ schools (are) mostly compromises”.  Never forget that new schools always become old ones eventually.


Letter from AS Neill to Dora Russell available in the International Institute of Social History archives:


From the 1918 Hansard

Reading the Hansard publications of education debates from the past is a glorious habit to get into (the best links are pointed to via the Living Heritage website).  Not are the debates frighteningly like those ongoing today, but they provide a welcome sense of reality into political debate. In 1918, unafraid of being picked on by the media, MPs seem to speak more candidly about what they see around them, and do so in ways that are less combative and much more concerned for children. The same concern is evident today, but far too often it sounds phony in comparison to the genuine alarm raised in the past – possibly because so many MPs genuinely had no idea about poverty but the only way they could find out was going out and meeting people, not hiding at photo opportunities and reading about ‘the average man’ on Twitter.
One of my favourite quotes comes from a debate on the 1918 Education Act, a very important Act that raised the school leaving age to 14 and provided some, very patchy, provision for 14-18 education.  It also attempted to ‘raise the status’ of the teaching profession by providing teachers’ salaries more centrally and at higher rates.
However, the quote that made me nod so furiously did not raise any of these. instead the speaker discusses why schools needed to be improved, and it is still pertinent today. It is amazing how often the debate in education concentrates around ‘saving’ the disadvantaged or ‘dragging them from a horrible life’. What this forgets is that many people in limited economic situations are not unhappy, nor do they wish to become ‘posher’ nor take part in ‘higher culture’. Their issues are ones of poverty not of ignorance or misunderstanding of the beauties of, say, Latin or Opera.  To confuse the two is to misunderstand how poverty feels or what its consequences are.  In general, life is not significantly upset by not understanding Wagner if you have other music you find comforting; in contrast, it definitely is worse if you don’t have enough to eat.
And so to the quote from the echoes of time:

“This Bill, at any rate, does recognise that education is a social problem, and, like all social problems, is interdependent with other social problems. You are not going to make the best of education if children live under adverse physical conditions-and in the moral atmosphere of slums and of poverty. I desire every child to have a fair opportunity, and I am quite sure that education is going to play a great part in that regard. I do not want that chance to be given to the child in order that it may escape from its class or get the better of other people, but in order that it may become a better citizen and be able to give greater service to the community.”

Were O-Levels Harder Than GCSEs?

When answering the question: “Which was harder, O-Levels or GCSEs?” there are two different answers depending on what precisely you are asking about.
If you are asking: “Was it harder to get an A on O-Levels compared to GCSEs?” the answer is: Yes, it was harder to get a high grade on O-Levels rather than GCSEs. This is because grades for O-Levels were norm-referenced meaning only a set number of students could ever achieve the highest grade. Given that only students who had showed a high level of proficiency at the age of 11 were entered for the exam, the competition to be in that top percentage was particularly fierce and so an A was a (relatively) rare accomplishment.
If you are asking: “Was it qualitatively more difficult to complete an O-Level exam compared to a GCSE exam?” or “Did you need to know more to get an O-Level than a GCSE exam?” then the answer is more complicated. Having looked at O-Level papers the content is no  more challenging than what is expected of GCSE candidates – in fact in some places it seems rather easier. The O-Levels have far more choice in each paper, more marks given for conjecture, and the format of questions requires much less interpretation than today. Of course wise question choice and conjecturing are skills in themselves so I shall not argue that GCSEs are *harder* but I do think there is enough evidence to shows O-Levels were not qualitatively more difficult either. Hence, if you are asking are GCSEs easier to DO than O-Levels my answer would be: No.
Related Posts: 
Let Us Not Pretend That GCSEs Are Perfect
White Poor Pupils Do Considerably Worse At GCSEs Than Anyone Else