School Heads: philosophers or accountants?

Here’s a story I’ve told many times. As a young educational researcher it was my first and greatest insight into schooling. Mothers will recognise this.

I was helping out on a teacher professional development course. It was  1980, the first moment of ‘Thatcherism’ and the entry point to the horrors of austerity and right-wing populism that were to emerge – we didn’t know then. But John Lennon died that year – one of our defenders against the ‘Blue Meanies’. The group were of primary school heads, and they were being exposed to the early infections of the ‘entrepreneurial’ pandemic. A businessman had been brought in to teach these head teachers about leadership and economic efficiency. He listed some leadership qualities and gave some tips. A head raised his hand. “What if it’s a windy day?’

The infection-carrier was nonplussed. ‘What difference does that make?’

Well, all primary school teachers and mothers know that when a wind gusts it spooks the kids and they get jittery and run wild. Leadership dissolves into emotional intelligence.

So the carrier recovered himself, shrugged off this juvenile distraction and set to challenging these naïve executives. He split them into groups of 3. In each group two were to talk at the same time to the third who was to return to the plenary to try to recount both messages she or he had heard. The point was to illustrate the heroic leadership challenge of coping with the confusion of  simultaneous and competing incomings. So the heads dutifully went away into their groups. They came back able to recount faithfully all of the multiple messages they had received. 

The contaminant was, again, stunned. How come? “Have you never been in a Reception Class?” asked an infectee? 

Well, Thatcher won out against all the odds and against common wisdom and culture. Schools became small businesses, in competition with each other, and windy day or calm, heads were required to apply the principles of accounting to educational life.

Before the policy of Local management of Schools (LMS), which turned each school into a ‘small enterprise’, heads were asked to be philosophers of education. And they were. Much of the 1960s explosion of educational innovation and creativity was driven by the writings of school heads on educational democracy and creativity: Michael Duane (Rising Hill Comprehensive), Tim McMullen (Counteshorpe College), the wonderful Michael Armstrong who wrote Closely Observed Children (Harwell Primary), the incomparable A.S. Neill (Summerhill School), and, of course, the maestro of all, the turn-of-the-century John Dewey (Chicago Laboratory School). Above all, these were Humanists who understood self-determination and personal knowledge, who valued the kids’ intellectual independence. These were the practical philosophers of Humanist education, developing robust educational theory out of daily practices, driving thought with experience. Mostly, they were free thinkers – which is to say, discovering their own boundaries in thought and action, not waiting for tight limits to be imposed on them. They were, too, scientists – in the best and purest implications of that monicker: experimenting, sharing, arguing, advocating, learning. But their ilk and their learning was cast out – like Lennon, assassinated by insanity.

The experimental and Humanistic drive of these and others like them is alive today – mostly as a flickering candle of creative desire against the unforgiving glare of managerialism. Much dimmed by Ofsted, a politicised national curriculum and a determination to rid education of democratic possibility, these flickers are, even so, an everlasting light. They have endured and they will, because society, in spite of this dark moment in history, is committed to Humanistic advance. Those school heads who yearn for free-thinking philosophy await their moment when politicians finally abandon their hopeless pretensions at control and yield to educational wisdom. 

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