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Education in Crisis? Perhaps Government Policy Is At Fault

The more pupils there are who get certificates, the greater the responsibility for those who don’t.

Those are the words of one of the most influential educational visionaries of the 20th century.

Sir Alec Clegg, was the Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, then the biggest authority in the country, from 1945 to 1974, and his influence was worldwide.

He successfully pioneered radical educational reforms during turbulent times of industrial dispute and social change.

Graduating from Cambridge with a first in languages Clegg had been a pupil at the Quaker boarding school, Bootham, in York, where the emphasis on the value of basic human worth had a profound influence on him.

Clegg believed there was good in every child, no matter how damaged he or she might be, and that teaching methods could encourage the child to become whole.

He once said

there are two kinds of education: the education of the mind by imparting facts and teaching skills, and the education of the spirit … the child’s loves and hates, his hopes and fears, or in other terms, his courage, his integrity, his compassion and other great human qualities.

Dr. Nora George author of “Sir Alec Clegg: Practical Idealist” wrote

his continual preoccupation was how to make children think and use their knowledge, rather than produce the suffocation of overstuffed minds.

Fundamentally Sir Alec promoted the belief that the teaching of art, craft, music, drama and sport demanded equal attention with academic studies. The life of the child could then be enriched by the development of his creative powers.

In a move that might appear to be prophetic today, Clegg also anticipated trends and changes in occupation.

He believed that unless pupils were encouraged to develop a sense of curiosity and a love of learning then an increase in leisure time and choice would be lost on those least equipped to use it.

During the seventies I had the good fortune to attend a middle school in the heart of mining Yorkshire and at the heart of Clegg’s directorship.

Ackworth Middle School drew pupils from four primaries, had been purpose built and was styled on Clegg’s vision. Open plan, each year group consisted of three classes with its own shared area, the main hall/gymnasium with co-joining large music room opened into a vast space with three large rehearsal rooms. There was a library and dedicated cookery, pottery, needlework, wood and metal work spaces. Outside the extensive greens included tennis and netball courts, football walls and separate playgrounds.

The only text books we had were for maths, which was also the only subject for which we were streamed; there was no homework, and while there was a heavy emphasis on creative writing I never knew what a verb was until I studied French, aged 13, at the local comprehensive. Today I am a writer.

Yet our powers of perception were greatly enhanced by a teaching method that encouraged us to consider and interpret the world by the development of our senses, particularly colour and sound.

Clegg encouraged the notion that the teaching of art, craft, music, drama and sport should be heavily integrated into mainstream learning. Most importantly there was strong synergy across all subjects with cross curricula links and no one subject was seen as being more important or less so than the other. In fact we discovered the fascination of geology when making jewellery and the culture of the Incas when crafting clay masks. We learned maths in environmental science as we replicated a terraced street in the village and developed a love of social history as we studied the architecture and the lives of those that had once lived there.

Pupils were motivated to push the boundaries in terms of their creative thinking and curiosity, resulting in a love of learning both at school and outside the school gates – a legacy which continues today. We were asked and shown, rather than told.

Attendance and behaviour issues were rarely an issue. A sense of social responsibility and concern for others was fostered, particularly during the national miner’s strike, and we were all encouraged to be proud of who we were and what we could do.

To promote this vision staff were selected not only for their academic ability but also for their personal passions as well as their desire to inspire and raise the aspirations of a community deeply affected by industrial issues.

The woodwork specialist was a keen outdoor adventurist; one English teacher was a powerful exponent of modern art; a French specialist spurned tradition at every corner and celebrated festivals in a unique way – including turning the class into a circus top at Christmas and letting us sit in darkness while we observed refracted light through colour filters on an arrangement of glass bottles.

At the start of each term there was hymn practice (and even those were modern) but every Friday morning was given over to a mass singsong of first world war classics as the whole school joined together while the Head, a talented pianist, accompanied us.

The exceptional music teacher was given considerable scope to encourage every pupil to take up an instrument with all spare time given over to free use of rehearsal rooms, music clubs, preparations for concerts, dancing and perhaps most importantly – for creative music. We composed our own music whether we could read it or not and even whether we played an instrument or not. In short we created while we learned and we learned while we created.

But what became of the pupils?

Well I can only speak for those with whom I remained in touch but many of us went on to become solicitors, medics, teachers, lecturers, graphic artists, geologists, librarians, computer specialists, journalists and in my case a writer and radio producer. Our futures were not adversely affected by this radical style of education – in fact they were enhanced.

Perhaps Sir Alec’s lasting legacy was that he was a keen proponent that encouragement is far more important that criticism or punishment. Which is why it saddens me today to see our Minister for Education, Michael Gove, criticise rather than encourage our dedicated teachers and the profession at large.

In his last ever lecture Sir Alec Clegg’s concluded with this:

When Michelangelo was going to Rome to see the Pope prior to his being employed to build the great dome of St Peter’s and paint the Sistine Chapel, he took a reference with him which said:
“The bearer of these presents is Michelangelo the sculptor. His nature is such that he requires to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement. But if love be shown him and he be treated really well, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder.”

Sir Alec Clegg did just that and his vision is badly needed again today.