Hail the anti-Blunkett! Two decades after penning his celebrated 'The Child in the City', Colin Ward is still championing the teacher, railing against the 'idiots' who run our schools and wondering where 'happiness' fits into the national curriculum. Aleks Sierz meets the educational heretic, now honoured by a volume of essays in tribute to his vision
Colin Ward is the teacher's friend. Mention teachers' pay and the author of the 1978 classic The Child In the City laughs grimly. "I've been horrified how, since the Thatcher years, teachers have been blamed for the dire results of the collapse of Britain's manufacturing industry. And the way primary teachers have been crucified is ludicrous and absurd."
Instead of rewarding those at the chalkface, he argues, "One Secretary of State for Education after another has tilted at phantoms that don't exist, such as 'half-baked progressive ideas of the Sixties'."
Even since The Child in the City looked for the first time at the urban environment from the child's point of view, Ward's own progressive ideas have matured long past the half-baked stage. As a tribute to his vision of a better world - and in time for his 75th birthday later this year - the social commentator Ken Worpole has edited Richer Futures, a collection of essays that explore the new politics of community-based, self-help activities, covering education as well as housing, health and transport.
A chapter by David Goodway tells Ward's life story: son of a teacher, he left school at 15 and became an anarchist after witnessing poverty and hearing radicals speak in Glasgow during the Second World War. After the war he edited anarchist magazines, became education officer of the Town and Country Planning Association and wrote a score of books about the environment and education.
He remained true throughout to his anarchist ideals, which are expressed in his love of variety, autonomy and self-motivation - all of which he believes are increasingly denied to teachers.
He has a gentle manner but is clearly enraged by what he perceives as the absurdities of an over-centralised state, and is instinctively opposed to the "mega-structures" of government planning - more evidence, he believes, of the state's mania for control and regulation under which "the teacher's sphere of autonomy withers away" and job satisfaction flies out of the window. "You wonder how teachers keep their self-respect."
How does it feel to have a book written about him? "Overwhelmingly delightful. People have said such kind things about my work. People I've never met but have admired from afar, such as Tim Lang, the food expert, have contributed - it's a treat to find you've got a friend in someone you've admired."
Ward says he "doesn't deserve" the compliments paid to him, and goes on to praise the chapters on education by Eileen Adams, with whom he wrote Art and the Built Environment in 1982, and Fiona Carnie of the small schools movement. "I value smallness," he says.
At 74 he is an energetic author, journalist and lecturer, a self-confessed "educational heretic", and a man of many enthusiasms. For every question about education today, he answers with examples from the past, drawing not only on his experience teaching in a south London technical college in the late Sixties, but also on his wide reading: he quotes as easily from the 18th-century anarchist William Godwin as from Steen Eiler Rasmussen, the Danish architect; he is as happy discussing A S Neill's Summerhill as Rising Hill School.
Talking about local education initiatives, he cites the free school movement of the Seventies; moving on to London's East End, he mentions Alex Bloom, a local secondary head "who tried to put progressive ideas into practice".
When I ask about the child's view of education, he whips out a small piece of notepaper. "Here's what a teacher friend of mine wrote: 'For the children all the fun and enjoyment have gone out of school because they are time-bound and subject-bound, even in primary school'."
We met on the day the Department for Education and Employment issued guidelines for teaching primary maths. "They're even prescribing seating arrangements," says Ward incredulously.
He sees the national curriculum as "an absurdity - yet another removal of any kind of autonomy from teachers". If you look at the "charismatic" teachers most people remember from school, he maintains, they tend to be from subjects "where the pupils' own subjectivity was valued", such as art and English. "But that particular magic is missing when what a teacher has to teach is rigidly prescribed."
He says: "The idiots who drew up the idea of a national curriculum had little familiarity with what actually goes on in schools." Now, he argues, the same curriculum is "used by government as a weapon against perfectly good schools, closing down small rural primaries."
What would Ward do if he were in David Blunkett's shoes? "Resign," he chuckles. He believes the only hope for education is not direction from above but creativity from below. He shakes his head at the "strange authoritarianism of a small faction of bureaucrats who've always yearned for more control". And he's against closing private schools because "that would mean also closing the small progressive schools which are doing such a good job".
For teachers he has nothing but praise. In particular he extols the music teachers who have inspired his own children - his son Barney played the trumpet in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle. He also recalls that his children had "a freedom of the streets" denied to today's young people. "The experience of the child is narrowed and narrowed," he says. "Children today suffer from environmental deprivation."
The freedom of the streets is even more elusive since Ward wrote The Child in the City. And he continues to believe the poor city child is the child most failed by the education system. "Once boys lorded it over the girls," he says. "Now, because of unemployment, they're seen as scapegoats and idle, no-good bums with no future. A celebrated educator once said to me that, instead of letting boys drift into crime, we should give them pound;10,000 each and see what they do with it." He mimics the reaction of the education establishment: "anguished horror at rewarding wickedness."
Ward says: "Anarchists have always been nutty about education." He then quotes William Godwin again: "The true object of education is the generation of happiness." But, he says with a smile, there's still a long way to go before happiness appears on the national curriculum.