Professor John MacBeath strikes you as a softly spoken, thoughtful sort of academic – not a likely host for the devil incarnate. Yet he was once described as part of “the real heart of darkness in education” by the late Chris Woodhead. England’s now infamous former chief inspector railed against the “progressive” ideals that MacBeath and others like him promoted.
MacBeath considers it a badge of honour. A radical who was at the forefront of the 1970s deschooling movement (see box, opposite), he has since been fully embraced by the educational establishment and has helped shape the UK’s schools, as well as inspection regimes.
But the academic, who received a lifetime achievement award from the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement this month, still has few qualms about venturing into controversial territory. As first minister Nicola Sturgeon considers plans for a “state-funded autonomous school” in East Dunbartonshire – he sees no reason why Scotland will buck a global trend of diminishing local authority control over education. In England, this has manifested itself in the form of academies and “free schools”.
“I think, inevitably, schools will go closer to the English model of more and more autonomy being devolved to schools…The power of authorities over time I think will definitely be loosened,” he says.
Some councils are too “dictatorial” and took an attitude of “We are the employers, you’ll do what you’re told”, he says. This is why self-evaluation, which he pioneered, has only seen mixed success in Scotland, he adds
But he says he is not anti-local authority and criticises moves towards a “completely free market” in England. There, he says, knock-on effects include very privileged schools that refuse to take in children who have special needs because of the school’s academy or free school status.
His ideal is a system where local authorities have a lighter touch than they currently do in Scotland, but retain a “moderating role”.
He fears that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), fundamentally an attempt to give teachers more flexibility over how they educate children, was “too radical” and lacked pragmatism. While some schools “loved” it, others have “really struggled” and were not prepared for it adequately, he says.
CfE’s attempt to banish traditional subject hierarchies has floundered because “You can’t get any kind of radical reform past strong subject lobbies”, he says.
Macbeath contributed to the book Why Learn Maths? that questioned why there is such a strong focus on subjects in schools, something that led to him being “declared a total heretic to be burned at the stake,” by his nemesis Chris Woodhead, he recalls.
MacBeath questions why, after mastering basic numeracy and multiplication, children must take maths until they’re 16. The subject enjoys a “sacred” place in schools, yet children might benefit more from philosophy, ethics, logic or anthropology, he says.
“This whole idea of a curriculum as a set thing of what children are going to learn – it is so inflexible,” he argues.
MacBeath believes that another traditional feature of schools, hierarchical leadership structures, is proving resistant to the idea that everyone from the youngest pupil to the most senior staff should be a leader.
He has long espoused “distributed leadership”, but the idea often flounders in practice, working only with “exceptional people and a lot of building of that ethos over time”, he says. Some Hong Kong schools have managed it “remarkably well” despite an authoritarian education system, but he adds that it is “very, very difficult to sustain”.
Eventually, says MacBeath, the pressure for a school to produce good test results will tell. And if something goes wrong, the headteacher is ultimately blamed as “the system can’t hold every teacher accountable”.
MacBeath is scathing of the modern trend to educate most children with special needs in mainstream schools. Some of these children are “very, very miserable”, he says, because only “amazing, very exceptional” schools can cater for everybody.
He attaches no blame to teachers, who he says are under pressure to meet attainment targets, and who lack expertise in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.
“There is a real danger in trying to mainstream as a kind of economic or ideological move; I’ve seen it in England and in Scotland as well,” MacBeath warns. He says that he has heard “tragic stories of children who were mainstreamed and couldn’t cope.”
“A free school in the real sense of the word”
MacBeath has seen startling change in Scottish education since he went to primary school in the 1940s, where pupils were hit with a belt every time that they made a spelling mistake.
His family moved to Canada and he thrived in a “very liberal, democratic ethos” at school. But when he returned to Glasgow aged 14 in 1954, the contrast “could not [have been] bigger”. Teachers had their weapons of choice – the “stool of repentance” sticks in the memory. “I couldn’t believe that I had stepped back in time to the Dark Ages,” he says. “It was just so awfully repressive.”
Such experiences shaped MacBeath when he went into teaching. In the 1970s he started the famous Barrowfield project in Glasgow. This “free school in the real sense” saw pupils who had never fitted in elsewhere arriving when they pleased and deciding what to learn. “Those were very heady and idealistic times,” says MacBeath, adding that teachers accepted weekly wages of scarcely £9 because they believed in the cause.
Over time, however, Barrowfield became “more bureaucratic and more like an ordinary school”. The end came when a boy, barred from going on a trip, reacted badly.
“His revenge was to climb onto the top of the school and go down through the skylight and set fire to the school.”
“After that,” says MacBeath, “it had kind of had its day.”
John MacBeath CV
Professor emeritus at University of Cambridge, director of Leadership for Learning: The Cambridge Network and projects director at the Centre for Commonwealth Education
Director of University of Strathclyde’s Quality in Education Centre until 2000
Member of task force on standards for Tony Blair’s Labour government, 1997-2001
Consultancy for OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Unesco, European Commission, Scottish executive, Swiss federal government and Hong Kong’s education department
Author of five books on self-evaluation including Schools Must Speak for Themselves and Self-evaluation: what’s in it for schools?
Made OBE for services to education in 1997
Lifetime award in January 2016 at International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), held in Glasgow.