Lessons in Radical Education: The Legacy of R.F. Mackenzie

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that universal access to education has been revolutionary. Only since the late 19th century have people of increasingly diverse backgrounds been able to have some kind of access to formal education, and, thankfully, that access has only improved alongside our understanding of the necessity of education to the development of a flourishing and just society. Yet, as for every hard-won progression, there is an ever-present danger of becoming comfortable and complacent in our attitudes towards these social provisions, of losing forward momentum and, eventually, backsliding. We come to view them as broadly static objects within our cultural landscape, unchanging and indeed without the need to change. They exist as monolithic pillars of our society and of our minds: work is work, school is school, democracy is ticking a box every four years. Our lives exist on an assembly line of citizenship, with school primarily serving to prepare us for later subservience and capitulation to data-driven corporate management and inept local and national governance. Only the university is culturally understood to be the site of liberating self-discovery, of intellectual development and action, and even the integrity of that space is increasingly under threat from the pressures of consumerism and neoliberal orthodoxy. When we think back to our own experiences in primary and secondary school, it’s likely that little, if anything, stands out in memory as radical, revolutionary, or even slightly against the grain. Thanks to rigorous- and often overbearing- systems of standardisation, we can pretty much assume our experiences of education were broadly similar to other students up and down the country: a utilitarian emphasis on conformity, acceptance of authority and a diet of passively received knowledge.

As the foundations of society grow increasingly entrenched, it can be difficult for us to conceive of what a radically different system might look like. In the face of the tedious persistence of modern inertia, it’s useful- revitalising even- to remember the reformist, radical thinkers within our own tradition. In the history of Scottish education, Robert F Mackenzie was one such thinker.

R.F. Mackenzie was born in Garioch, Aberdeenshire in 1910. After graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 1931, Mackenzie travelled extensively around Europe, earning a living as a tutor and journalist. During his time in Europe he witnessed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and joined the RAF as a navigator during the Second World War. After the war ended, he trained as an English teacher and in 1957 took a position as Headteacher of Braehead Junior Secondary School in Buckhaven. ‘Junior’ secondary schools were designed for pupils who had failed entrance exams in primary school and offered a narrower curriculum than other schools.

It was during this time that Mackenzie was at his most prolific in pursuing his vision of a radically different education system, developing his ideas in a series of three books: A Question of Living (1963), Escape from the Classroom (1965) and The Sins of the Children (1968). With these, Mackenzie advanced a philosophy of education which was child-centred, humane and compassionate to children living in difficult circumstances, children who were often marginalised by educators and society more broadly. He placed emphasis on allowing students to engage with their learning on a more democratic basis, on developing an interest in the natural world through excursions outside the classroom, and on teaching children to work cooperatively with one another. in the first of his books he outlined his thoughts, saying, ‘I believe that human nature is generally good, that human beings react generously to conditions of freedom and that therefore teachers doing experimental work in education would be wise not to try and “mould” children into some shape but to help them to grow in freedom’. In contrast, Mackenzie took serious issue with the dominance of exams and metrics as the increasing focus of education, as well as with the prevalence of corporal punishment in classrooms, at the time dished out for even the most minor of ‘rebellions’. ‘The tradition of sin and punishment,’ he observed, ‘is deep in Scottish Education.’

With a dedicated staff and the support of an engaged parent council, Mackenzie was able to put a lot of his theories to the test, developing a curriculum which was focused on the well-being of the students first and foremost, and which provided ample opportunity for growth as cooperative individuals beyond the classroom. Mackenzie had a love of Scottish history and the Scottish countryside and, together with mountaineer Hamish Brown, led students on various expeditions to the highlands, observing and commenting positively on the youngster’s response to being allowed a modicum of freedom and the responsibility which comes along with it. He even acquired a country house for the school to carry out regular weekend activities.

Robert was deeply critical of the examination system, believing ‘it inspires boredom; it impedes experiment and progress; it enslaves the curriculum; it ignores real values; it measures useless information; it ignores character.’ He had no qualms in vigorously advancing his position and preference for the abolishment of contemporary examination systems in favour of continuous modes of assessment. 

He was equally critical of corporal punishment- especially for girls- believing it a barbaric relic of the Calvinist tradition. At both Braehead and later Summerhill, Mackenzie made attempts to abolish corporal punishment. On this point, however, he was met with the most resistance from both teachers and parents, and was ultimately unsuccessful.

On the advent of sweeping and prescriptive educational reform, in April of 1968, Mackenzie left his position at Braehead Junior Secondary School for a position at a new Comprehensive- Summerhill Academy in Aberdeenshire. The introduction of the Comprehensive system saw the closure of many smaller schools, which were then integrated into these new campuses which served much larger areas and populations. Alongside this, the reform began to introduce more stringent and centralised standardisation measures. Mackenzie was deeply sceptical of this development, believing this new system simply ‘made the traditional Tory curriculum and view of society available to a larger number of working-class children.’  The limited success of Mackenzie’s programme at Braehead had been aided by the relatively small number of students and an open-minded staff; at Summerhill, he would find neither. He had pleaded with the Education Council to be afforded a staff with at least some similar qualities as those he had worked with in Braehead. No such concession was made, and Mackenzie soon found himself assailed on all sides by disagreeable staff, confused parents and critical inspectors.

For the next six years, Mackenzie fought tooth and nail against a system designed to curtail dissent and prescribe thought, and in 1972 he was formally accused by more than half of his staff of having an ‘unusual and particularly permissive philosophy.’ Without support from staff and parents in his attempted ban of corporal punishment, and occupied with daily battles against draconian education authorities, his methods were increasingly called into question, having never been given much of a fair chance in the first place. The school was perceived to be increasingly ‘lawless’ and in 1974 Mackenzie was called to a meeting with the Aberdeen Education Committee. At the meeting- more accurately a ceremonial sacking- a characteristically impassioned Mackenzie proclaimed “It is not me who is on trial today, it is comprehensive education that is on trial …you have given us children with wounds in their souls. We could have cured them, we should have cured them, but we couldn’t because you gave us a divided staff.” His protestations and admonitions fell on deaf ears, and his initial suspension led to dismissal the following year.

Following his exile from education, Robert wrote his own account of events at Summerhill leading up to his suspension and eventual dismissal, entitled The Unbowed Head (1976). In it he continued to rail against the prevailing culture of standardised testing, corporal punishment and submission to uncaring authority which had begun to fully permeate Scottish education with the introduction of the comprehensive system.

In 1980, he wrote the Manifesto for the Educational Revolution; this work was at once an elegy for wayward ideals in Scottish education and a furious, radical call to arms. The Manifesto failed to find a publisher during his lifetime, but the manuscript was recovered and published posthumously in 2004. Ruminating once more on his disillusion with modern educational practice, Robert said, 

‘This journey into the interior of education showed me how it is powered. I had been aware of its faults and strove to make improvements because I believed that at heart it was sound. I know now that I was mistaken.  At its heart it is not sound. The commodity it is merchandising is Authority, and the teachers, like the commercial advertisers, are the hidden persuaders using subliminal, quasi-religious concepts to assure pupils and parents that their salvation lies in the worship of Authority, in accepting the Law, in preferring Judgements of this ‘revealed’ religion above their own unlettered thoughts.’

Mackenzie had been derided by a backwards establishment as an unruly blight on Scottish education. In our modern context, we can recognise that the only thing Mackenzie was guilty of was being ahead of his time; the intervening years since his dismissal saw the eventual banning of corporal punishment, and, through the recent implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland has been making attempts to allow more space for learners to grow as individuals, for educators to account for agency and difference between pupils, and for assessment to more accurately support and account for the development of students at various levels.

There is, however, an ever-present tension between the ideal of learning for personal and social development and the utilitarian view of learning which reductively and deterministically stratifies youngsters in service of maintaining neoliberal cultural norms. We still conceive of education as being primarily a means to prepare the young for work, an attitude which reproduces on a national level the classroom habit of ‘teaching to the test’, wherein students are rushed through schools with little opportunity to really consider, or even ‘play with’ ideas being presented to them; instead we learn what employers want from us, how we are to conduct ourselves, what level of questioning is acceptable and appropriate. How then, can we expect to develop an informed and engaged citizenry, if from 0-18- despite what toothless philosophising might go on within the safe confines of a Modern Studies classroom- we are instructed to accept the world around us as adequate, fair, or inevitable?

As Scots we are often told- and surely would like to believe- that our education system is the ‘envy of the world.’ If that was ever a certainty, it appears progressively dubious. While our education system is different from Englands, the same cultural forces are at play here as down south, who view education as  little more than a tool to reproduce an authorised image of society, which runs deeper than Labour or Tories or the SNP. `one need only look at reforms pushed through down south as recently as last month to understand what’s at stake; in a new ‘guidance’ brief for teaching, the UK government advised,

 ‘Schools should not, under any circumstances, use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as it could imply an endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to: 

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections.
  • opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
  • the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
  • the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

Elsewhere, the ‘guidance’ advises against working with those deemed to be peddling ‘victim narratives’. While these measures don’t have any bearing on Scottish education, it would be foolish to imagine ourselves as above such restrictions on free and reasonable enquiry, which this suspiciously timed manoeuvre undoubtedly represents; while for some it can be comforting to conceive of primary and secondary schools as idealised spaces free of politicisation- and this latest revision in England comes under the guise of such agnostic principles- in reality, education is always a politicised space, and the powers that be know this only too well. In a cultural moment characterised by civil unrest across the world- in BLM marches, the struggle for advances in LGBTQI+ rights, and a broad interrogation of social inequality in the wake of covid- they have been shrewd to target schooling in their efforts to stem the tide.

It might be said that RF Mackenzie was a romantic idealist at heart, and surely his philosophy of teaching could often come across as woolly in his various books, light as they were on developing robust educational theory. It might also be said that he placed too much hope in the ability of schooling alone to remake the cultural landscape. While we should recognise that sweeping, radical change rarely springs forth from one area of life in isolation of others, education, as Mackenzie recognised, will nevertheless play a crucial role in any social transformation. ‘A revolution in child rearing is essential to a widespread cultural change,’ he said. ‘ Without it there will be no rule of the majority, that is to say no democracy. With it there will be a new perception of the nature of intelligence and a fusion of thinking and feeling into a deeper understanding; a new perception of how to live our lives; and the healing (the making whole) of our sorely riven society.’ 

SQA Results: Class Bias In Education

The long-awaited results from the Scottish Qualifications Authority are finally in and they seem to have revealed a bias in how students are graded. The SQA had refused to disclose how they would decide pupils’ final grades, at least until the results were published. This despite the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission expressed concerns that the proposed grading system may have been illegal.

On Tuesday of this week, as young people around Scotland received their results, the SQA finally revealed their methodology; it appears they decided that the professional opinion of the teachers that work with the pupils was not enough, electing to include taking the historical performance of the schools in which pupils attended. In essence, the grade pupils achieved was altered based on how other people had done in the years before them. If the school had no historical data, they simply went with the teacher’s recommendation.

What this means is that pupils from deprived areas saw their grades lowered at a much higher rate than pupils from wealthy areas. The estimate for the number of poor students that had their final estimate reduced from their teachers estimate was around 15.2%. In contrast, the wealthiest pupils saw only around 6.9% of their grades reduced from teacher estimates. In general, the poorest kids across Scotland had their marks downgraded from a pass to a fail at twice the rate of the richest kids.

This has resulted in many pupils that have worked hard- many of them harder than their wealthier counterparts- having that hard work thrown away by a system that cannot be described as anything but classist.

One pupil from Coatbridge tweeted –

“I’m really trying to understand how the SQA think it’s okay to mark me from a predicted A to an F in psychology because I come from a deprived school with low results despite having four A’s at Higher already. If that doesn’t show I’m a capable student then what does?”

As a result of the backlash the SQA has received, one of their Chief Executives, Fiona Robertson, will give evidence to the Education and Skills Committee on Wednesday. The deputy convener of the committee had this to say –

“Today’s events place teachers in a horrendous position… The failure of the SQA to publish their methodology in advance is solely [to] blame for that.”

The only thing the First Minister has had to say on the subject when confronted about it was that an unprecedented rise in their pass rate would not have been ‘credible’.

In isolation this is bad enough, but when you look at the wider context of the education system in Scotland it becomes clear that this is just one event in a history of discrimination against students from deprived backgrounds; in a report in 2018, Professor Sir Peter Scott, the Scottish Government’s Commissioner for Fair Access found that students from the poorest areas are typically 5% less likely to complete degrees than those from elsewhere. Poorer students are defined as being from the 20% of areas at the bottom of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivations (SIMD). Professor Scott is quoted as saying –

“Part of the reason for ‘underperformance’ by SIMD20 students may be that our current definitions of academic ‘performance’ are deeply interwoven with largely unacknowledged assumptions about behaviour linked to class and culture… it is commonplace to talk about ‘institutional racism’ that is so deeply entrenched it may go unrecognised, the same is true of class.”

Any pupils that are unhappy with their results have an opportunity to appeal the decision for free once (although this process in itself can take up to 9 months). We can only hope that positive steps are taken to rectify this national embarrassment. A good step forward might be for Nicola Sturgeon to take Professor Scott’s advice and set out a route map for closing the attainment gap by 2030. He argues that merely improving access to universities is not enough- more must be done to support marginalised students who face barriers to entry not based on aptitude or ability, but on financial and social factors. This latest debacle shows how far we have to go to to address inequality and prejudice within education.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

University Strikes: Staff and Students against Management

Across the country, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, universities are being hit by a 14-day strike, with staff at over 74 universities taking part and thousands joining in support, both workers and students. Universities state they will attempt to keep services unaffected by the industrial action but this statement is looking increasingly hollow as classes are cancelled, and with many students actively supporting the strikers, the universities are increasingly looking like the weaker side. 

The University and College Union, the group that organised this wave of industrial action are taking issue with the way in which treatment of staff is continuing to deteriorate. Increasingly, consultation has set into the industry, with an increase in zero-hour contracts, an unresolved gender pay gap and worsening contract terms. The straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of staff appears to have been changes to pension schemes meaning staff were paying more without the University increasing payments into the pot in kind. 

This will be the third time that uni staff have gone on strike, the last time happening just before Christmas and negotiations are still not landing at a reasonable result. During this time however support from students, according to the BBC is around 47% among students Keeping in mind this might be the third time some of these students have gone through a strike nearly one in two students still supporting the strike is both surprising and good news for staff. The strikes have also got the support from some politicians, notably including Labour leader candidate Rebecca long Bailey and Labour education shadow secretary Angela Rayner. Support from other parties is a bit quieter, not surprising since in previous strikes in Scotland SNP cuts were directly called out as a reason for industrial action, with Staff and union members warning as early as September last year about SNP policy making strike action more, not less likely. 

Support in Glasgow’s institutes remains high, and many students continuing to join staff at picket lines. The reasons behind the Scottish strikes are a little different than the strikes taking place elsewhere in the UK; as mentioned earlier, the cuts to education in Scotland were a driving cause, as was a reduction in real wages, with union representatives saying that some lecturers have had a reduction in pay of 20% over the last decade. 

One interesting form of protest that has emerged during these strikes is that staff are simply following their contracts to the letter without carrying out any of the additional duties they were doing outside of the role they were hired for. The effectiveness of this strategy is shocking, and cuts to the heart of the issue of casualisation in education. The fact that these institutes are crawling to a halt simply because people are only doing what they are paid to do exemplifies how much of a burden is being pushed on to staff without compensation. By forcing employees to burn the wick at both ends without even fairly compensating them for the additional work they are relied upon for, it was only a matter of time before workers took to defending their livelihoods against a deal that is tightening the screws on them. 

Although students continue to show their support, this has not been without consequences. Some universities have dealt students suspensions and expulsions for supporting staff, aiming to drive a wedge between teachers and students. This policy has put people’s educations at risk and at Stirling University, students that supported the strikes earlier last year were threatened with homelessness as they would be banned from university accommodation. The fact that university management is treating the support for staff with such an iron fist, threatening teenagers with homelessness is deeply chilling. The idea that universities are a place that young people can grow, learn but also develop a voice is not lining up with the reality, where you can now be kicked out on the streets for piping up. 

As the strike continues it’s important we all pay attention to what is going on: our centres of education are putting the squeeze on educators and support staff, and at the same time dealing out draconian punishments to dissenters. If you’re able I would ask you to support the strike in any way you can, or else the next generation will be taught about the world from underpaid, overworked educators and reminded constantly to keep their mouths shut.