Who Cares About Education by Eric MacFarlane

This post is the foreword to this new book and is written by Melissa Benn. Eric MacFarlane was the founding principal of Queen Mary’s College, one of Hampshire’s pioneering 16+ comprehensive colleges, and has been an LEA adviser, examiner and assessor. He worked at the University of Surrey and Birkbeck College promoting the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative, before becoming academic staff adviser in University College, London. The book is published by New Generation Publishing

This thoughtful book is published just as a fresh set of  politicians try once more to overhaul our education system. Young people,  says our government  (which has, incidentally, no popular mandate for any such reform),  should once more be divided into the supposedly academically able and the rest. The only problem with this proposal?  It has already proved a failure as was shown, fifty years ago,  when educators, parents, politicians and students, from all points on the political spectrum, rejected the binary division of the primary school population into winners and losers.  And so our comprehensive system was born.

Yet here come the same old tired and élitist ideas, only this time they are dressed up as diversity not division, a means to promote so-called social mobility rather than suppress the achievements and spirits of the majority and with grammar schools now reframed as  ‘centres of excellence’.    Having been a grammar school pupil, teacher and head teacher himself,  Eric Macfarlane is particularly well placed to puncture the discouraging doublespeak of these proposals and he does so with forensic precision.

But this book, which goes to the heart of our current dilemmas, is about so much more.  Eric Macfarlane has had an astonishingly varied and interesting life as a teacher, school leader, consultant and examiner, always learning from his many roles (this last is so important).  He subtly and gently deploys this long experience to point out how far we have travelled from understanding and developing a profound sense of what education should be about.  Instead, succeeding waves of anxious and arrogant politicians have substituted the quick fix for deep thought, the top-down overhaul for organically evolving change, the conventional and the arid for the bold and playful.

Our education system is slowly being strangled by an obeisance to old-fashioned ideas that only the academic route is worth anything, an obsession that not only fails so many of our children but does not even serve the traditionally successful.  Every young person, whatever their talents, needs access to a general and more arts-based education and a more exploratory and enjoyable approach to the art of learning itself.

As the head of one of the country’s pioneering open access 16-19 comprehensive colleges Eric Macfarlane shows us what such a broad and less specialised educational experience can achieve – indeed, what it did achieve –  and how much it benefits young people at a point when they are at the height of their creativity and expressiveness. With controlled force, and always resorting to the reasoned, human example, he argues that if we would only stop trying to ape the past and in particular some partial, mythical view of the old public school model we could develop a more original and exciting vision of learning.

At the same time, we need to loosen the grip of centralised political control on our schools. Genuine school and classroom autonomy has been eroded over decades by politicians and policymakers convinced that they, and they alone, know what a good education looks like,  sweeping away generations of fruitful experiment and hard-won experience in the process. Now even our primary schools are being robbed of their breadth and vitality in order to become early staging posts on the way to an over-specialised university experience.

Despite his warnings, this is not a pessimistic book.  Eric Macfarlane manages to convey the many joys of truly unfettered learning, and acknowledges that there are, and will always remain, many wonderful teachers and heads and pupils in our schools, working against the grain of official policy.

For all that,  there beats in this well informed crie de coeur a single powerful message: we are heading in completely the wrong direction.

This wise book will speak to a wide range of audiences. It will surely strike a chord with those lucky enough to have experienced first-hand some of the innovative and intellectually exciting experiments of an earlier era of comprehensive education before obsessive accountability measures and endless testing took over.  It will also prove an important resource for a generation of teachers, parents and young people who sense something has gone very wrong in today’s system.

This rich mix of memoir, reflection and persuasion will, I hope, act as both tremendous encouragement to their burgeoning rebellions and a guide to shaping an alternative approach.

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