4th February 2000 at 00:00
THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN. By John Abbott. The 21st Century Learning Initiative, pound;17.99.

Our system of formal schooling is deeply, some would say fatally, flawed. Teachers find dealing with the huge range of abilities, personalities and aptitudes of their pupils difficult, if not impossible.

Most heads and teachers make the best of things, trying hard to cleave to good principles in their own schools, making small changes where they can.

Not all, though, have been content to do this. The history of education is punctuated by those who have tried to make a real difference - A S Neill of Summerhill, Michael Duane of Risinghill, the free-schoolers of the Sixties and Seventies and the great army of parents who educate their children at home. And, of course, there is John Abbott.

What marks him out is that during the Eighties, unlike so many of the others, he won the ear of the government and the establishment to a remarkable degree. This is not only because he is persuasive, knowledgeable and knows where to go to make the right connections, but because he has a record as a successful head within the system, running a respected school, Alleyne's in Hertfordshire.

Politicians and industrialists came to Alleyne's and listened to what Abbott had to say about the need for a broader approach that would see schools, industry and parents working as a team, free from rivalry and suspicion. He pleaded for less emphasis on schools and teaching and more on community and learning. Thus Education 2000 was painfully born in the town of Letchworth.

It was intended as a model for how whole communities, with the help of good information technology, could "opt in" (his phrase) to the task of helping their young people to learn. In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, in November 1987 he spoke of "community laboratories - whole townships working together to find some new solutions. Places in which all sections of society are involved tothe hilt in creating rich places for learning".

The story of Education 2000 (a crucial part of his book) is inspirational and deeply worrying. It shows just how difficult it is to shift the thinking of politicians, including those in local education authorities who see their job as running the system as it is.

Abbott was fighting for understanding of, and support for, Education 2000 at the same time that the very government he was lobbying was devising the City Technology College programme, in many ways the philosophical opposite of what he was trying to do. Then came the national curriculum, of which he writes: "There was a real danger that the schools were now being propelled into a way of teaching that would reinforce many of the old techniques which Education 2000 had been set up to change."

As the frustrating Eighties turned into the Nineties, and Education 2000 failed to convince policy-makers, Abbott became increasingly interested in how children learn - a natural progression from his conviction that the Government's emphasis on teaching, rather than on finding out about learning, was mistaken.

He was made president of the 21st Century Learning Initiative in 1996. Based in the United States, he lectures around the world, raising awareness of how our understanding of the brain and the process of learning have justified revising our ideas about education.

Intent on telling us about all the influences on his thinking, he has written a sprawling book that could, and should, be shorter and tighter. This is a shame, because the heart of the story sheds a unique light on what it is like to try to sell good ideas to politicians who may well be sympathetic but are hobbled by their addiction to the unholy political mix of ideology and expediency.

Gerald Haigh

Details on how to order the book from The 21st Century Learning Initiative, Business Centre West, Avenue One, Letchworth, Herts SG6 2HB. E-mail:

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