Creativity in the English Curriculum
Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children
Education in Spite of Policy
What is Education about?
Mary Warnock: Ethics, Education and Public Policy in Post-War Britain
Who Cares About Education? ... going in the wrong direction
Grammar School Boy: a memoir of personal and social development
The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling
Education under Siege: why there is a better alternative
New Labour and Secondary Education, 1994-2010
Politics and the Primary Teacher
School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education
Children, their World, their Education
Education Policy in Britain
School behaviour management
Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Faith Schools: consensus or conflict?
The Professionals: better teachers, better schools
Education Policy in Britain
Who Controls Teachers' Work?
Faith-based Schools and the State
The Best Policy? Honesty in education 1997-2001
Love and Chalkdust
State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy
Experience and Education: Towards an Alternative National Curriculum
Bullying: Home, School and Community
Bullying in Schools And what to do about it
A Community Approach to Bullying
Teacher Education and Human Rights
Troubled and Vulnerable Children: a practical guide for heads
Supporting Schools against Bullying
Bullying: a practical guide to coping for schools
Financial Delegation and Management of Schools: preparing for practice
Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act
Re-thinking Active Learning 8-16
Two Cultures of Schooling: The case of middle schools
What is Education about?
Geoffrey Marshall 2021
117pp., Paperback £7.99 (plus postage) ISBN 978-1-00-647346-3
available through ebay
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2022
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:
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).