A monument to hope;Opinion

5th February 1999 at 00:00
The new biography of R F MacKenzie should be on the reading list of all aspiring MSPs, says John Darling

I READ A Question of Living when it first appeared, the year before the election of the Wilson government. With its vivid portrayal of real pupils, their needs and their lives, R F MacKenzie's book created a distinct stir and had a significant impact on debates about the need for radical change. Now, reading Peter Murphy's The Life of R F MacKenzie: a Prophet without Honour, one is struck by how distant that period seems.

In 1963, MacKenzie was head of Braehead junior secondary in Fife: three books later he was given the headship of a secondary school in Aberdeen which coincidentally enjoyed the same name as the private experimental school founded by another dissident, A S Neill. Although MacKenzie's stormy period of office lasted only six years, that he was appointed to the Summerhill headship is itself a powerful indicator that the sixties were a special time. While Neill's Summerhill continues to this day, Summerhill Academy (where Murphy was at one time head of English) ultimately died a death by attrition through parental choice, 13 years after MacKenzie had been suspended from post. The decision to close the school was announced on the day that MacKenzie died.

Written by a fond admirer, The Life of R F MacKenzie allows R F himself to do a lot of the talking through lavish extracts from unpublished, as well as published, sources. This works well, and it is clear that the book is designed to allow MacKenzie's voice to be heard again.

Always an obviously human being, MacKenzie has his portrait deftly painted in colours that allow us to see why he was greatly loved and also detested. We read about him growing up in deepest Aberdeenshire; having doubts about his university education; engaging in a lifelong love affair with the Scottish countryside; undertaking a formidable cycling expedition in Europe; going on bombing raids with the RAF; finding he could forget the war when in bed with his girlfriend.

But beyond snapshots of his life, Murphy's book offers an irresistible invitation to revisit MacKenzie's philosophy and attempt to get some kind of measure of the 1999 version of Scottish education against the humane ideals of more hopeful times. Murphy also provides reminders about significant fragments of our social and educational history: the war-bred determination to achieve a better, classless society; the raising of the leaving age to 16; the introduction of the school guidance system. This last development MacKenzie saw as having true educational potential, and he cultivated it vigorously to the chagrin of his more traditionalist, subject-minded staff.

Inevitably, we are also reminded of the days when teachers tenaciously maintained their inalienable right to hit their pupils. In some places, schooling seemed to depend on the belt. MacKenzie's battle against corporal punishment highlights the difficulty of bringing about the kind of change that can easily be portrayed as dangerously unrealistic.

Yet the unimaginable has come about, although the reform came neither through the profession nor from political leadership, nor yet in response to public demand. It would be nice to think that Murphy's book would stimulate further reflection. Was MacKenzie's brand of progressivism unproductive, or even counter-productive? Did he have a limited grasp of strategy, or perhaps just an impatient contempt for strategy?

Self-assurance can often be seen as arrogance, and MacKenzie, for all his support for less privileged pupils, seems to have had little understanding of the insecurities that often afflict those who find themselves involved in the difficult and arduous business of teaching. Murphy attempts little by way of critical evaluation, but he supplies the reader with some vital clues. Sadly, the book is not equipped with an adequate referencing of sources.

MacKenzie's other target was, famously, the exam system and the way secondary education was dominated by the Highers. Now, instead of Highers joining the belt on the scrap heap, we have (using here the title of the Dunning report) assessment for all, a phrase which seems to suggest that the good things in life should be widely distributed instead of being restricted to the favoured.

Again, it would have been hard to predict that the examination business would successfully turn itself into a major growth industry, albeit with assessment procedures being more intelligently thought through than previously. While in MacKenzie's time, some clearly warmed to his indiscriminate rage against examinations, today the idea of learning without accreditation is in danger of becoming incomprehensible.

When Christopher Rush published his more recent tirade against the Highers (Last Lesson of the Afternoon), how many could understand why he was so roaring angry? If secondary teaching now means preparing youngsters for certification, there remains a need to show that alternative conceptions of education are possible. Peter Murphy's book helps to meet that need.

As a pre-emptive strike against the risk of suffocation by total orthodoxy, The Life of R F MacKenzie should be put on the reading list of every student without delay. And in May a copy should be sent to every MSP.

John Darling is joint director of the Centre for Educational Research, Aberdeen University. "The Life of R F MacKenzie: a Prophet without Honour" is published by John Donald, price pound;15.95.

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