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 Sir Chris Woodhead – the former Ofsted chief inspector who railed against the “progressive” ideals that MacBeath promoted.
MacBeath considers it a badge of honour. A radical at the forefront of the 1970s de-schooling movement (see box, above right), he has since been embraced by the educational establishment and – as a pioneer of self-evaluation – has helped shape the UK’s schools and inspection regimes.
But the educationalist still has few qualms about venturing into controversial territory. He criticises moves towards a “completely free market” in England’s state schools. There, he says, knock-on effects include “very privileged schools that say, ‘No, no, because we’re an academy or a free school, we don’t have to take in children with special needs’”.
However he believes that the education system in his native Scotland leans too far in the other direction, with some councils that are too “dictatorial” with schools. His ideal is a system where local authorities operate with a lighter touch and retain a “moderating role” – such as that of New Zealand, where schools are “less under the thumb”.
MacBeath is critical of standardised national testing. He says that England provides a salutary tale for countries such as Scotland – which plans to introduce such assessments from the first year of primary school – as its national tests have had an “incredibly dominating and narrowing effect on the curriculum”.
MacBeath also decries traditional preconceptions about which areas of the curriculum are most important. The book Why Learn Maths?, to which he contributed, questioned why there was such a strong focus on the subject in schools. It led to him being “declared a total heretic to be burned at the stake” by his nemesis Chris Woodhead, he recalls.
MacBeath does not see why, after mastering basic numeracy and multiplication, children must take maths until 16. It enjoys a “sacred” place in schools, yet children might benefit more from subjects such as philosophy, logic, ethics or anthropology.
“This whole idea of a curriculum as a set thing of what children are going to learn – it is so inflexible,” he says.
He believes that another traditional feature of schools – hierarchical leadership structures – is an obstacle to the increasingly popular idea in Scotland that everyone from the youngest pupil to the most senior teaching staff should be a leader.
He has long espoused the idea of “distributed leadership”, but admits that it often flounders in practice – working only with “exceptional people and a lot of building of that ethos over a period of time”.
Some Hong Kong schools have managed it “remarkably well” despite an authoritarian education system, MacBeath says, but it is “very, very difficult to sustain”.
Eventually, 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”.
The academic is withering about the modern trend to educate most children with special needs in mainstream schools. Some of these children are “very, very miserable”, because only “amazing, very exceptional” schools can cater for everybody.
He attaches no blame to teachers, but says that they are under pressure to meet attainment targets and 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,” warns MacBeath. “I’ve seen it in England… tragic stories of children who were mainstreamed and couldn’t cope.”
John MacBeath CV
Professor emeritus at University of Cambridge, director of Leadership for Learning: The Cambridge Network
Director of University of Strathclyde’s Quality in Education Centre, 1992-2000
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, 1997-2015
‘A free school in the real sense of the word’
John MacBeath went to primary school in North Berwick in the 1940s, where pupils were hit with a belt every time 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 Scotland aged 14 in 1954, the contrast “could not be bigger” at his Glasgow school. Teachers had their weapons of choice. The “stool of repentance” – which pupils had to lean over while they were beaten – particularly 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 was a free school “in the real sense” where pupils who had never fitted in elsewhere arrived and left when they pleased and decided what to learn. One pupil who indulged a passion for cooking is now a chef at a top London restaurant.
“Those were very heady and idealistic times,” says MacBeath. Over time, however, Barrowfield became “more bureaucratic and more like an ordinary school”, and the end came when one boy, barred from going on a trip to Arran because of bad behaviour, 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,” says MacBeath. “After that, it had kind of had its day.”