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Reflections on an American adventure

F orty years ago this weekend, I was in Washington having a meal when, crackling over the restaurant's public address, came the dreadful news of the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Just a year on from the Cuban missile crisis, through these first nervous hours of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, the world held its breath. Such was the sombre background to my embarkation on the SS France for my study tour in the United States.

I was 33, and second deputy at Crown Woods, a new large London comprehensive. With two months' paid leave from London County Council, and a travel grant of pound;300 from the Gulbenkian Foundation, I was to cover 5,000 miles (mostly by Greyhound Bus), visit 13 schools and three university education departments: Harvard, Michigan and Chicago.

I was leaving an England where the normal school-leaving age was 15 and new goals had just been set on university expansion and education of lower ability secondary pupils. It was a time when local education authorities were experimenting with comprehensives, two years before Harold Wilson's government went for national comprehensivisation.

The purpose of my visit was to search out best practice in running large common schools, mostly - for obvious reasons - in school districts recognised as progressive and well-funded. The anniversary of Kennedy's death has brought back memories of that trip, so I decided to to re-read my report: 60 sheets of browning foolscap, drafted during four peaceful days of the return crossing - not something to attempt with a laptop in a jumbo!

This report may be four decades old, but its seems astonishingly topical containing cherished objectives whose moment may - just possibly - have arrived.

Take citizenship, which has just become mandatory in England's schools. In the US high schools of the 1960s I saw citizenship that went far beyond the classroom - lived out through student councils and strikingly in social services for students: amenities that recognised their needs as people, helping to reconcile them to an education extending into adulthood. Will our schools, built "for the future", indeed match nationwide the generous social facilities that I saw 40 years ago, in the Evanstons and the Ridgewoods, but have rarely seen since?

Or take tailoring education to the individual or, to use the current buzz phrase, "individualised" learning. We have our 14-19 strategy, intended to present a widening range of opportunities, with a new emphasis on the system's duty to inform, advise and provide everyone with a "flexible pathway". But what we are aiming for now was almost everywhere in 1963 America. In the most interesting schools, there was a serious wish to make learning more individual.

Now at last, we are poised, professionally and technically (computers in the 60s were room-size), to make fundamental advances.

Most immediately relevant, among my old-time concerns, has to be a more logical approach to school staffing, presented to us in 2003 as "remodelling" the workforce as part of the workload deal.

Forty years ago, I reported on impressive numbers of Amercian "personnel whose work directly relieves teachers and increases their efficiency", and wrote of teacher there being "appreciated as specialists in education rather than maids-of-all-work expected to turn their hands to any task connected with pupils". I was assured that no $10,000 (pound;6,000) staff were used to do $5,000 tasks. Can that be matched for topicality?

At every stage of my American adventure my path was smoothed with helpfulness, courtesy and generosity. One final anecdote: on Thursday November 21, Dr Francis Keppel, holder of the top federal post of US Commissioner of Education, found time to share the findings of this unknown British teacher.

Our discussion was closed by a summons to the White House; his president was ready to see him - for the last time.

Peter Cornall was Cornwall's chief schools inspector for 10 years, until his retirement in 1991

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