Book reviews

Creativity in the English Curriculum
Lorna Smith (2023)

Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children
Philip Graham (2023)

Ignorance
Sally Tomlinson (2022)

Education in Spite of Policy
Robin Alexander (2022)

What is Education about?
Geoffrey Marshall (2021)

Mary Warnock: Ethics, Education and Public Policy in Post-War Britain
Philip Graham (2021)

Enfield Voices
Tom Bourner and Tony Crilly (eds) (2018)

Who Cares About Education? ... going in the wrong direction
Eric Macfarlane (2016)

Grammar School Boy: a memoir of personal and social development
John Quicke (2016)

The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Peter Housden (2015)

Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling
John Smyth and Terry Wrigley (2013)

Education under Siege: why there is a better alternative
Peter Mortimore (2013)

New Labour and Secondary Education, 1994-2010
Clyde Chitty (2013)

Politics and the Primary Teacher
Peter Cunningham (2012)

School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education
Melissa Benn (2011)

Children, their World, their Education
Robin Alexander (ed) (2010)

Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2nd ed. 2009)

School behaviour management
Lane, Kalberg and Menzies (2009) and Steege and Watson (2009)

Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Belinda Harris (2007)

Faith Schools: consensus or conflict?
Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns and Denis Lawton (eds) (2005)

The Professionals: better teachers, better schools
Phil Revell (2005)

Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2004)

Who Controls Teachers' Work?
Richard M Ingersoll (2003)

Faith-based Schools and the State
Harry Judge (2002)

The Best Policy? Honesty in education 1997-2001
Paul Francis (2001)

Love and Chalkdust
Paul Francis (2000)

State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy
Clyde Chitty and John Dunford (eds) (1999)

Experience and Education: Towards an Alternative National Curriculum
Gwyn Edwards and AV Kelly (eds) (1998)

Bullying: Home, School and Community
Delwyn Tattum and Graham Herbert (eds) (1997)

Bullying in Schools And what to do about it
Ken Rigby (1996)

A Community Approach to Bullying
Peter Randall (1996)

Teacher Education and Human Rights
Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey (1996)

Troubled and Vulnerable Children: a practical guide for heads
Shelagh Webb (1994)

Supporting Schools against Bullying
Scottish Council for Research in Education (1994)

Bullying: a practical guide to coping for schools
Michele Elliott (1992)

Financial Delegation and Management of Schools: preparing for practice
Hywel Thomas with Gordon Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Nicholson (1989)

Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act
Edwin Cox and Josephine M Cairns (1989)

Re-thinking Active Learning 8-16
Norman Beswick (1987)

Two Cultures of Schooling: The case of middle schools
Andy Hargreaves (1986)


What is Education about?
Geoffrey Marshall 2021
Self-published
117pp., Paperback 7.99 (plus postage) ISBN 978-1-00-647346-3
available through ebay

Review by Derek Gillard
October 2022

copyright Derek Gillard 2022
This book review is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.



Geoffrey Marshall (1929-2021) (pictured) read law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and then became a teacher, happily using the traditional didactic methods of the time.

But his views on the nature and purpose of education changed dramatically in 1962 when he attended a course at the University of London Institute of Education, led by Christian Schiller. He went on to serve as head teacher of three primary schools over a period of 35 years.

After retiring, he wrote a number of articles in which he expressed his anger at the policies of successive administrations. These, he argued, had turned education into a government-run training programme in which learning was streamlined, standardised, tested and compared, in the service of the economy.

Shortly before he died, he self-published What is Education about?, a collection of these articles written between 2008 and 2016, together with some notes from his time as head of Sherwood Park Primary School in Tunbridge Wells in the late 1970s.

Children, he says, 'are expert learners. They have to be and they show it from birth' (page 9). They 'refine their skills of learning as they abstract meanings from concrete experience. They do this by observing and making choices about what they are interested in' (page 29). These skills are fundamental to the process of learning: 'the essential value of whatever the child chooses to do is not about increasing its store of knowledge but about growing as a learner' (page 22).

As to the teachers, it is their role 'to follow the child, ready to talk through the possibilities. Being alongside, reading the child, then becomes a prime skill of the teacher' (page 10), who is 'watching for a growing control and sophistication in developing ideas' (page 30).

This child-centred view of learning and of the role of the teacher, he argues, is in stark contrast with the prevailing view of politicians, that good teachers have the ability 'to impose and to instil the required information' (page 10). Teachers have become 'a function of targets, inputs and outcomes reducing the magic of learning to a set of instructions and measurements' (page 10):

All children everywhere, no matter what the local opportunities or disadvantages, will be driven through the same abstractions to deliver the same answers and be assessed in the same way. The results will then be stored for future reference. Schools are now actively harming children by denying their curiosity, making learning a matter of memory, and insisting that what is learnt only has worth if it can be processed for the purposes of the Department for Education. Education rewards conformity and control whilst success is achieved by competition and seldom by co-operation (page 14).
As a result, English primary education, which once attracted visitors from around the world, has regressed to the 1930s, with 'stifling hours of English grammar and phonics, abstract number systems and copying from books' (page 20).

Politicians - led by 'pro-market libertarians' - have created 'a system of control producing material for the labour market', based on teaching in a formal didactic style a National Curriculum which 'asks questions no child is interested in and effectively ensures they never will be' (page 89). This, he argues, is not education but a system of training in which schools are required to ensure that children conform to a pattern constructed by society and enforced by the government. In this model, education is a service to the state.

To the confident young learner, fresh from the fields of learning by observation of experience, it comes as a crushing statement that school is where you know by being told and by remembering what you are told. From that time the child knows that nothing is accidental, everything is controlled, and its prospects are dependent upon being obedient to the wishes of the school. If it's not in the curriculum it is not valued. Success is measured by the child demonstrating it is consistently providing the expected answers, not to its questions, but to the body who contrived the curriculum (page 83).
Child-centred teaching, on the other hand, asserts that education should be 'an unconditional service to children, with all other claims upon it as being secondary to that' (page 39). 'In the same way as a doctor begins with the patient and not the treatment, should we not begin with the child and not with "education"?' (page 105).
... child-centred education is right. It must be. Who ever heard of a hospital where the patient was not the central purpose? Yet in schools the treatment is settled before the child is registered. Why should a few be educated and the rest be trained? (page 117).
He is critical of the emphasis on competition, believing that it distorts 'all that we as a school believed should be our purpose' (page 96). Competition requires comparison which means statistics of success or failure have to be gathered.

This has a particularly devastating effect on the teaching of reading. In Marshall's school, there were 'no reading schemes, no reading lessons, no comparisons or competitions to see who could read the most esoteric words or who had read the most books' (page 98). This did not mean that those who needed it were not helped: 'only that their need was met as it arose and was specific to them. Reading was just a natural, useful, unthreatening, enjoyable habit' (page 98). But with competition, reading was reduced to 'being able to pronounce selected printed words and answer questions upon the text' (page 99):

It had to be like that because the 'reading' of children could only be compared if it could be reduced to a number. The very first principle of reading, that of personal pleasure in choosing a text, of the resulting dialogue where the reader asks questions of the author, of the page being a realm of satisfaction, was destroyed (page 99).

In his final article, Education versus the state (April 2016), Marshall argues that the government has created 'a simplistic, highly structured and disciplined system of whole class instruction which by definition assumes that each child is ready for instruction in a particular gobbet of the curriculum' (page 114). Politicians have decided 'what it means to be educated, what we may know, how we may come to know it, how we should be assessed and all the other issues surrounding what takes place in schools' (page 117). 'When it is our very lives in question,' he concludes, 'then I believe we should face them down' (page 117).

In addition to the articles, the book includes two documents relating to Sherwood Park Primary School, where Marshall was head for fifteen years: The future of the school (notes for a staff meeting, March 1976), and Developments at Sherwood Park Primary (notes for a talk to teachers at a weekend conference c. 1980)

Also included is the evidence which Marshall submitted in January 2016 to the House of Commons Education Committee's Purpose and Quality of Education in England Inquiry. He summarises this as:

  • Children are gifted learners which they demonstrate from birth.
  • Education is a process which promotes that ability to learn by providing rich experiences for them to practise and improve their skills. Teachers should be educated to understand how children learn and trained to manage the process.
  • Childhood is a distinct stage describing a time when children grow from understanding by sensory experience to being able to make use of abstractions. They do this by observing concrete experiences and choosing how to respond, but always within their capacity to choose.
  • The skill of choosing cannot be taught, only practised. This process continues with some hesitation until approximately the age of 11.
  • Choosing implies responsibility which requires that in the first instance the child is responsible for the outcome and must be allowed to make a judgement.
  • The ability of a child to make wise choices and to use materials skilfully can be appreciated but not measured or compared. Statistical comparison is therefore impossible.
  • It therefore requires a body of well-informed HMI, understanding the education of young children, close to the ground, sensitive to national and local issues who will oversee a manageable group of schools and report both to the Government and to the Local Authority (page 44).
Incidentally, although a variety of organisations submitted evidence to this Inquiry, it would appear to have been quietly forgotten, as no report has been published. Would it be cynical of me to assume that this is because the content of the submissions is not what the government wants to hear?

Geoffrey Marshall's book is bitter-sweet.

Sweet because, for those of us old enough to have been teaching in the 1960s and 70s, it brings back many memories of how good it was to work in schools where the children had a say in their own learning.

When Marshall stresses the importance of allowing children to choose, I am reminded that during my teacher training course (1963-66) I was lucky enough to spend some time at Bampton Primary School in Oxfordshire, where the head, RT (Bob) Smith was then a member of the Plowden committee. The school day began with 'choosing time', during which each child pursued whatever topic s/he had chosen. This was so popular that many of the children came into school early to begin their work.

And when Marshall talks of children 'creating their own curriculum of learning as a skill' (page 25), I remember my time at Bective Middle School in Northampton in the 1970s where, apart from a handful of subjects such as music, science and PE, there were few 'lessons' as such. The pupils decided for themselves - with help and guidance from the teacher - their own course of work. (The nearby Kingsthorpe Middle School was much more traditional in approach. I once asked a teacher at the high school to which pupils from both schools transferred at 13 how the pupils compared. He replied 'Well, if I asked them, for example, "what is the equator?" the Kingsthorpe pupils would probably know the answer; the Bective pupils probably wouldn't, but they'd know how to find out, and that's actually more important, isn't it?').

And again, when Marshall describes the school uniform as being 'the most obvious and outward sign of the drive for conformity' (page 35) and 'the first step towards individual invisibility' (page 82), I am reminded that, at Marston Middle School in Oxford, where I was head in the 1980s, the uniform consisted of one item: a maroon sweatshirt bearing the school logo. The children were not compelled to wear it but more than 80 per cent of them chose to do so, which, I think, says a lot about how they felt about their school.

But Marshall's book is bitter, too, because it reminds us of all that has been lost in the drive for conformity and competition. I don't mind admitting that at several points during my reading of the book I had a tear in my eye as I recalled what once was but is no longer - that humane, caring, child-centred style of education so derided by the neoliberals and their friends in the right-wing press.

What is Education about? is beautifully presented and nicely illustrated with photographs of the impressive work of the children who attended Sherwood Park Primary School in Tunbridge Wells in the 1970s and 80s.

As former HMI Professor Colin Richards has said, Geoffrey Marshall's book 'shows how, given the right conditions, children are capable of amazing things - light years away from the trivialities of measurable test results. It's never been more pertinent.'

I couldn't agree more.

Some of the above information is from Charles Marshall's obituary of his father, published in The Guardian (26 October 2021).