12 October, 2015Issue 29.1Literature

Email This Article Print This Article

A Radical Approach to Education

Edward Hicks


Edward Hicks
An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education
Tony Little
Bloomsbury, 2014
288 pages
ISBN: 9781472913128





Tony Little is headmaster of one of Britain’s oldest and most successful schools. It is also one of Britain’s most reviled. Eton College, founded by Henry VI, is for some synonymous with privilege and elitism in all their most pejorative and poisonous forms. Prejudice can be a terrible thing, and if prejudice ever led those trenchant critics into the muddy bog of misjudgement through condemning a book without having read it, then I fear this is the most likely victim and the occasion where it would be most lamentable. Little is an old Etonian, educated there on a scholarship and returning to oversee the school with an institutional devotion that we should applaud and replicate everywhere. He is that very thing the National Union of Teachers would generally commend: a private school educated, Cambridge undergraduate, who heard the call of the teaching vocation, who trained to be a teacher through the one-year PGCE qualification, taught English and Drama, and has risen to be headmaster of three schools. Besides this, he has now penned a most thought-provoking and incisive series of reflections on British education.

The book is organised into a series of thematic chapters ranging from exploration of the neurology of teenagers to a defence of boarding schools. It is as equally interesting and helpful for the parents of pubescent or infant children as it is for those interested in education policymaking. Little’s prose makes for a pleasant read, which occupied this reviewer for a glorious summer’s afternoon. His prose is accessible, uncluttered by esoteric theory or misbegotten jargon, while maintaining a robust intellectualism and empiricism. Alas, I think the themes are not as tightly pulled together as they could have been, and the structure of the material a little too much of a patchwork quilt. There are therefore three overarching threads I drew out of Little’s book: his thoughts on the purpose of education; his opinion on the schooling structure, especially examinations, and his handy advice on pastoral subjects and coping with that strange category of person: the teenager.

Little champions a somewhat old-fashioned attitude to teaching, often drawing on the insights of his headmasterly predecessor of a century ago, A.C. Benson. Old-fashioned because Little follows Benson in emphasising the importance of “joy and love” as the essences of education, and in perceiving teaching as a vocation as much driven by the heart as the head. He generally strikes a careful balance, championing teaching as a profession whilst not dismissing the importance of parental support or over-reacting to the growth of management. He notes that academics, because they effectively begin as middle managers with little direct relationship with senior teachers, have tended to view management with suspicion and disdain in a way unthinkable in the world of commerce. This lesson clearly applies as much to tertiary as primary or secondary education. What matters above all is the need to improve teacher training. Little fires barbs at the PGCE qualification in contrast to Finland’s approach. Not only is Finland’s initial teaching training superior, but there is also solid professional development throughout a teacher’s whole career. In terms of subject matters, Little celebrates what he sees is Britain’s fine liberal arts tradition. He observes this is something Chinese educationalists are envious of and aspire to imitate. This tradition expands beyond merely the sporting fields praised by the Duke of Wellington and so favoured by the Victorians, into more cerebral extra-curricular and curricular activities. Thus, Little stresses the importance of music and art in providing the imagination to furnish fresh and original ideas even in the STEM subjects. Given the tension of the supposed ‘two cultures’ of the arts and sciences, the perceived devaluation of music and art, and a focus on persuading pupils to prefer the ‘useful’ STEM subjects, Little’s comments are a useful solvent to such myopic Manichean attitudes.

Preceding all this, Little had opened his work by addressing the interconnected questions of school structure and examination. The elephantine question of private education in Britain is largely ignored (excepting a sentence or two suggesting private schools have done better than state counterparts in preserving the liberal arts tradition in education from the slings and arrows of government intervention). This neglect is sensible. He could hardly have persuaded his inveterate opponents, for some of whom the quotation he recounts from a former University lecturer has particular reference to private schools: “Schools are evil and you who are about to teach in schools will participate in evil.” No doubt the comprehensive school in the late 1980s which, as he recalls, basically told him he was persona non grata when he expressed a wish to visit, harboured some of these dogmatists. Fortunately attitudes have changed, and Little is therefore able to tincture his own insights with examples from local schools in the Slough and Eton area. Equally, eschewing this subject reflects his evident unconcern with questions of schooling structure—the relative merits of private versus state education; of selective grammar against non-selective comprehensive schools, and whether schools should, as with academies and free schools, be free of local authority control—which have formed one half of the interminable education debate since the Second World War. The other half, also strongly condemned, is the modern tendency since the advent of the National Curriculum in 1988 for political meddling and a fixation on things which can be measured. The opening section of the book could thus have been written by an irate member of the National Union of Teachers. There is a vigorous and rapid denunciation of an annual education act reifying perpetual political interference; of the fixation on measuring and the privileging of that which can be measured over other, more holistic, approaches; of the narrowing of the curriculum combined with the proliferation of pseudo-classes focused on ‘happiness’, ‘character’ and so on, and a general critique of an overly exam-focused school system.

Little’s most radical solution takes his arguments to their logical conclusion. He proposes abolishing GCSEs altogether. This somewhat excessive step is immediately caveated by insisting on ensuring pupils have studied certain ‘matriculation subjects’ which sounds suspiciously similar to the status quo. Apart from this radical plan Little has sensible suggestions for improving examinations. There is a need for a less rigid marking scheme: Little cites an awful anecdote of a brilliant history pupil given a U on one of his A-Level papers (and again on its being re-marked) because his assailing of a flawed question did not conform to an overly prescriptive mark scheme unable to cope with too much originality or brilliance. On the on-going debate over A-Level examination structure, Little is nuanced, recognising (and perhaps preferring) in some subjects, the value of a linear two year A-level rather than a modular structure divided into AS and A-Level. Yet I suspect he is open to the modular approach continuing in subjects, such as mathematics, which he sees as suitable and benefiting from it.

Little’s wariness of excessive reliance on measurements and of statistical manipulation causes him not to urge the abolition of league tables, nor the addition of never-ending ‘adjustment’ values to correct for this or that external factor, but an appreciation of their general limitations. At the same time he notes the absurdity of omitting International GCSEs from league tables.

Little vigorously argues for the need to revamp University admissions to ensure pupils apply with their actual grades rather than merely predictions. Little does not outline how this should be done but I submit delaying entry for a year would be better than the oft-proposed cramming of the entire admission process into a few summer months. Similarly Little’s passing lament that the ambition for provision of technical schools embodied in the 1944 Act did not come to fruition could have been expanded into further ideas for redressing this critical historical oversight in the British school system. Little’s balanced approach means that instead of denigrating inspections for their supposed inducement of stress, he observes a contrary harm—that they engender complacency in schools as he perceives they did in St Joseph’s Catholic School in Slough. Thus he wants inspections to help improve evaluation of those ‘holistic’ elements of a school he considers so important, rather than narrowing in on statistics.

Having commented authoritatively on these highly topical matters, two later chapters provide an intriguing ‘blast from the past’. One provides a rigorous and interesting advocacy of the much neglected cause of boarding schools. Unsurprising perhaps for the headmaster of a boarding school but no less valuable or less persuasive nonetheless. Another thoughtful chapter, albeit less persuasively argued, discusses the issue of co-educational or single-sex schooling. Appreciative as ever of the virtues on both sides, Little nevertheless comes down in favour of a predilection for single-sex schooling.

Little’s most striking chapters focus on dealing with teenagers. These I suspect will be the most helpful for parents and his fellow teachers. As a headmaster of adolescent boys he is particularly strong on this subject. He begins with an insightful chapter, entitled ‘Adolescence,’ about the neurological changes teenagers undergo. From this scientific foundation (albeit perhaps with too much determinism) Little moves on to address with pragmatism and prudence the teenage travails of sex and drugs. Despite showing an overly optimistic (even lax) view on the issue of bullying, Little is stronger on the value of spirituality, and suggestions for building the character of teenagers: a fourfold emphasis on instilling trust, giving opportunities for leadership, permitted failure as well as success, and encouraging ambition so as to inculcate a sense of self-worth. This can be done, he argues, not through special ‘character’ classes but within existing curricular and extra-curricular activities.

Tony Little’s book is a well-written, accessible, insightful, and thoughtful work which shows how fortunate Eton is to have him as its headmaster. No doubt some of the aforementioned critics will dismiss the value of many of his Etonian examples as inapplicable to the state sector. My reaction would be the reverse. It perturbed me to think that the good practices, not only of Little’s own school experiences but those drawn from nearby schools which he details, particularly on turning around struggling or complacent institutions, might need his book to gain wider circulation. I would hope that complementing his excellent proposal for centres of education research attached to schools nationwide, would be mechanisms for the nationwide proliferation of successful practices to instil discipline, build character, turn around failing schools and bolster extra-curricular activities. Then perhaps the educational gems contained in this work can be spread unimpaired by the clash and din of political brouhaha.

Edward Hicks is in his third year of a DPhil in history at St Anne’s College, Oxford.