Sunday, 5 December 2010

Developing teachers: theory or example?

These thoughts are occasioned by looking at a biography of Sir Alec Clegg, the last Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire which was abolished in 1974 (Peter Darvill, Sir Alec Clegg: A Biographical Study, 2000).

Clegg’s philosophy in the West Riding (primary schools, principally) was to promote the arts and expression, especially dance, PE and movement, even at the expense, some thought, of the 3R’s and the academic disciplines. The book’s writer is not a philosopher or deep thinker and if there was a philosophy in a worked-out sense behind Clegg’s ‘philosophy’ this isn’t the place to find it. One’s impression is that he went by what he saw to be engaging and changing children, and he shared that approach with his colleagues and advisers.

Clegg’s approach was clearly visible in the authority’s residential courses for teachers. One of his colleagues commented -- in the true West Riding spirit -- on the difference in value between course sessions run by arts practitioners and by university academics. (As an example of the former, the first course on ‘Poetry and Children’ involved Edith Sitwell, Robert Gittings, Edmund Blunden and Kathleen Raine -- big names in poetry in what seems to have been the late 1940s or early 50s.)

‘Diana Jordan’s confidential comments on a course run by Leeds University professors at Woolley Hall on the writing of English in spring 1958 were typical of those sent to Alec Clegg on courses of this type. She wrote-
“I cannot see that these University professors can do anything but make education more and more complex….Yet, when we listen to writers and poets, masters of the art of language, talking at other courses everyone understands, everyone goes with them and is lifted to higher realms of comprehension.”’ (106)

I suspect that what ‘theory’ lay behind this reliance on poets and artists was a mixture of T.S. Eliot (‘Notes Towards a Definition of Culture’) and Herbert Read (Education through Art). I.e. the theory was probably thin, but it’s doubtful whether any adequate theory was available at the time on the teaching of writing and better the intuitions and the ‘nose’ for a good classroom of experienced teachers like Clegg’s team than half-baked theory and mechanical procedures. Ditto for the arts, though I don’t know enough about this. What you’d need would be a good theory of semiotic (symbolic) mediations plus a good psychology so you could say how movement and sketching plants and writing poetry affected, well, let’s say the structure (affective and cognitive) of the mind or psyche.

Clegg was influenced above all by classrooms he saw in which children were engaged and creative and produced expressive work of high quality. While still at Birmingham during the war he visited Steward Street School, an elementary school in depressing industrial surroundings whose headteacher, Arthur Stone, had a rare appreciation of ‘the beauty that came from these children’ through art work. Stone wrote:

'The three "R's" I decided, should become a secondary consideration, for I believed that, if I could get that confidence, that interest, that concentration from each child which arise from creative art, I had the ground well prepared then for the three "R's". It must not be thought that I undervalue in any way the importance of the three "R's". I believe, however, that there are things of much greater importance, the development of the personality of a child, his growth as a whole, demand greater attention than the “R’s”.’ (13)

I think that if I were placing such weight on the arts I would rather emphasise the effects he regards as secondary and preparatory, getting confidence, interest and concentration, the last particularly being a prerequisite for all that intellectual advance that I’d want to put first in my educational aims. However that may be, Stone’s results were evidently impressive and quite unexpected in what would have been a poor and deprived population in 1940. Clegg’s team also observed other benefits from an arts-based approach adopted by schools in two villages as a result of a course in 1948: ‘“The awakened imagination and free expression is beginning to produce a flow of language that cannot be stopped”’ (45).

Further elaborating the distinction between teachers’ courses run by educationists and those by practitioners, Clegg -- and this seems absolutely characteristic of the West Riding approach to improving education -- comes down firmly in favour of the latter:

‘In October 1945 Alec Clegg had described the sort of refresher course he envisaged -
"One type is obvious, teachers must be acquainted with the latest methods in the teaching of their subjects, arithmetic or dancing, Latin or field games. More important, however, is the need for a direct attack on their general sensibilities and breadth of outlook. This can only be effected by bringing them into contact with the best minds in the country, either in industry or music, commerce or art, agriculture or theatre. These two aims can be combined in one course by the careful selection of speakers and lecturers.”’ (31)

You improve teaching by working on the teachers' ‘general sensibilities and breadth of outlook’ -- and by implication you do the same with children. But we note that the ‘best minds’ he wants teachers to encounter are, in each pair, from (a) a branch of the productive economy and (b) one of the arts. No mathematicians, scientists or scholars. Is his an approach which, relying as it does on learning from experts’ practice, is left with no way of learning from practices that aren’t practical but mental and symbolic (i.e. that work with symbolic forms like language and number)?

It’s hard to imagine what the equivalent experience might be in a maths or history or chemistry class that could have made an impression on Clegg like the one for which his art adviser, Basil Rocke, was responsible. (Rocke had studied children’s art in Vienna under Franz Cizak and was a founder member of the Euston Road School of Painters -- such was the calibre of the people Clegg surrounded himself with. Arthur Stone, too, joined him.)

"I so well remember the shock that I had when I went into a school in which he [Rocke] had done much work with a very gifted teacher and some thirty-eight paintings of flowers done by thirty-eight children, most of them children of South Yorkshire miners. They were sensitive individual paintings of a quality which I had never seen before and I remember my unspoken astonishment as for the first time I accepted Basil's conviction "that any thirty-eight children treated as these had been treated would become what they had become and would do as they had done." Alec Clegg described the paintings as " ... the instrument of my education." (47)

This is getting too long for a blog so let me draw this to a close with three observations:

(1) By all accounts what happened in the West Riding primary schools was an extraordinary flowering, above all of that ‘beauty’ that Stone had earlier made to occur at Steward Street, and of directed and purposeful curiosity (notably deployed in the local environment, especially as nature study). Nor can there be any doubt that for children to be creative, curious and purposeful is a fine thing in itself, regardless of other educational aims. The sense that Clegg and the teachers and advisers who worked with him had was that expression in words or art or movement was a release of the self, a liberation, an unlocking, and my feeling is that that was a theory with a good basis in experience and one on which a good primary education -- or a large part of it -- could indeed be based. I would, I think (based purely on reading descriptions and seeing some of the work) want all children to have the West Riding primary school experience.

(2) But not just because it’s not obvious how the transition is to be made -- the great divide to be crossed -- from experiential, expressive, curiosity- and sensual delight-led learning into the domain of abstraction, system, concepts, that of the academic disciplines as described by Michael Young (Bringing Knowledge Back In) and Jan Derry (various articles). However, it may be that the West Riding worked out ways of doing this too, though we know that Clegg found his secondary schools far more intractable. (Part of his answer, I don’t know how successful, was to break into them by extending primary education through middle schools to age 13). The problem is that Darvill doesn’t really understand the issue and his book isn’t a systematic or comprehensive inquiry. It’s time for a good history of Clegg and his West Riding schools.

(3) I'm in something we call the London English Research Group, the aim of which is to work towards an adequate theory for English. But in the group we know that amongst our PGCE students some who who are brilliant teachers are weak in and uninterested in the theory, and vice versa. West Riding teachers were ‘liberated’ into teaching better not by acquiring a better theory but by ‘broadening their sensibilities’; US teachers are ‘liberated’ in teaching writing better by being given the chance through local Writing Projects to experience being writers themselves. So, what exactly is the role of educational theory in producing better teachers? I don’t feel I can give a clear and confident answer to that.


Andrew said...

I confess I did not get far with Darvil. What interests me, and also a number of former colleagues teaching in Yorkshire is, with hindsight, what an unusual and enlightened period it was from the 44 Act to the end of the post-war consensus and the day Thatcher deprofessionalised us all by removing from us our ability to create curricula tailored to our learners. The whole thing took a long time to die, however, and I recall attending the rather sad final reunion of Bretton students a couple of years or so ago. It was an extraordinary age in education that needs a historian that can address both the example and the theory - and one that can start work while some of the protagonists are still with us.

We must not forget secondary though. I well remember going for my first job interview at Mexborough when George Shield, the Head, got a bit bored with the proceedings and said ‘Come and see my aeroplane’. He took me to the metalwork shop. It was his own design he said. He assured me it would fly because the 4th year had done the maths. It did. I got the job and subsequently met, and learnt a lot from, the deputy, John Fisher, an English teacher who a few years before had turned a truant called Hughes onto poetry.

Andrew clegg

Pete Medway said...

Terrific story about George Shield, Andrew. And I know of John Fisher from Ted Hughes's letter but also because a colleague is a friend and neighbour of his daughter who remembers Hughes as their kitchen table.

You're so right about the need to catch that generation while we can. On our project we refer to ourselves as sort of rescue archaeologists.

You're right too about that (in some places!) enlightened age. Another colleague, David Crook, points out that it was the age of confident and powerful education officers: Mason in Leicester, ? in Herts -- I forget the others he mentioned.

Andrew, we may well be intereted in talking with you about Mexborough if you're willing -- pursuing our interest in English in grammar schools. If that's something you'd entertain perhaps you'd share your email address with me at

Best, Pete