Hold on to the equal right to learn

11th December 1998 at 00:00
A week to the end of term; two weeks to Christmas; three weeks to the end of the year - and to the end of almost 41 years working in schools and my 20th as head.

Learning how to prepare myself for these levels of ending and of change, of loss of identity and of entry into a new unknown life, has proved almost impossible. My mind and my emotions have not managed to co-operate well on this major task.

I keep recalling snatches of T S Eliot's Journey of the Magi:

"A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey:...

A hard time we had of it ...

Then at dawn we came to a temperate valley...

All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? . . .

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation."

My journey started in September 1958 in the Provencal vibrancy of a girls' lycee in Marseille; it will end in the dynamic, enterprising, courageous and challenging learning community of Oxfordshire's Banbury School. My first UK post was in a girls' independent selective convent school - not too dissimilar from that where I was educated. As I look back, the obvious question to address is: why and how have I become so committed to the principle of non-selective and non-private schooling?

In the early 1960s I remember asking the nun heading the convent how her religious order, founded in the 18th century for the education and welfare of the poor, justified educating the daughters of the wealthy. My own answer to this question was to move in 1966 to a mixed non-selective school. As a Christian, who found teaching and learning alongside adolescents fascinating, I knew that the future did not lie in forever recreating the past.

My early 1970s gurus were: Professor Ben Morris in Bristol, who taught me that the professional person is he or she who continually seeks to make sense of what they are doing and to take responsibility for it; and Bruce Reed of the Grubb Institute, who helped me to understand two central issues.

The first was the nature of the prime task and that it, not persons, ultimately commands one's loyalty; the second concerned the nature of authority, and how it profoundly differs from power and authoritarianism - which so often run rampant in schools.

My late 1960s and early 1970s thinking was deeply affected by the perceptions and understanding gained from visiting and talking with those who were working in the wealth-creating sectors of society. It was then that I grasped the fact of the utter inter-dependence of the wealth creators and of the citizen creators - of business and of education. Upon this inter-dependence, I realised, lay the future economic and social survival of our nation. The 1976 Ruskin speech of Lord Callaghan only confirmed my conviction.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the impact of the emerging information and communication technology revolution excited my imagination as an educator (By now I was head of a secondary school.) We could see that it would change the world. On-going working links with the world of business, but never leaving my early gurus and influences behind, led me to understand completely why non-selective maintained schooling was crucial. As a nation we cannot afford to focus so much status and resource on the private and selective schooling sector of society, if we are to survive economically, politically and socially alongside the other major countries of the developed world.

As a proud English citizen, who is a committed European, as a passionately committed educationist, as a committed Christian, I believe that children have various and differing needs, but that all are of equal value before man and God. All have an equal and inalienable right to learn. Until we commit ourselves totally to this, we are the less as a nation.

Anita Higham is principal of Banbury School

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