No chance for choice
Peter Preston (1) The Guardian 31st August 1967
Peter Preston records the end of an experiment in schooling
If education cared more about education and less about politics, Bob Mackenzie would be a cause celebre in his own right. As it is, he has to fight his good fight more or less alone; a few writers and educationists speak up for him, but not enough to sway Fife Education Committee, never mind Edinburgh or Whitehall. Mackenzie's school is under sentence of death, and there's nothing anybody can do about it.
Mackenzie, a grey, mild highlander, came to Braehead Secondary School, in Buckhaven, Fife, ten years ago – headmaster at last after twenty years' teaching, some of it at impeccable Scottish establishments like Kirkcaldy Junior Secondary, some of it in the wilds of Hampshire at a school run by the order "Order of Woodcraft Chivalry." The years serving good, orthodox Scottish education taught him what was wrong with the system; the years of Woodcraft Chivalry – "a bit like AS Neil, only less extreme" – showed him what was possible. Right from the start of Mackenzie's reign, Braehead became an extraordinary and important school.
Buckhaven is a dirty old mining town; Braehead is a dirty old school, which gets its intake from the poorest districts and the lower levels of "primary achievers." In English terms, it's a secondary modern which isn't modern and is barely secondary – since another school, with new buildings, tends to draw the brighter 11-plus failures away. In the rigorously academic context of Scottish education it is a temporary haven for has-beens and the ranks of never-were. Bob Mackenzie's staunchest – Socialist – belief is that all children are equal, all deserve equal care and respect. The Braehead he set about creating is the imperfect, faltering, but determined fulfillment of that belief.
Individual adventure:A mere list of activities doesn't truly convey what's different about the school; drama classes, school newspapers, hikes in the remote Highlands, the plan to buy a hunting lodge at Inverlair, the emphasis on individual adventure – all these one might find elsewhere, though desperately infrequently among secondary moderns. What makes Braehead exceptional is the first-class staff Mackenzie has gathered around him (a staff of personalities which wouldn't disgrace the most pioneering of private schools) and the whole slant of the place – free range, committed to child after child, scornful of exams and all the cramming, the blind memorising that goes with them. If Braehead was dourly conventional, you wouldn't expect many shining exam successes from it anyway – the cherished "O" grades would be few and far between. As it is, Mackenzie gives the kids a choice: if you want to scrabble along the "O" grade path, we'll accept that and do all we can – if you don't, we'll concentrate on a full education on studying particular topics in depth, on character forming, on giving you responsibility. The Braehead he's tried to build, in short, is the ideal of the 1944 Education Act: it doesn't treat 11-plus rejects as predestined failures who might salvage a little exam glory if they're lucky; it loathes but accepts the judgement at 11 and charts a separate path for the throw-outs. Not a path you can test by exam results; not a path you can really test by anything – "Who counts well-adjusted parents?" after a decade of his success; but, of their nature, the successes he works for are intangible, unmeasurable.
Now, as he bitterly recounts in his third book, "The sins of the children" (out from Collins next week), it's all over. Fife is going comprehensive. Braehead, grimy and battered, is the natural school to close and absorb in the gleaming new comprehensive being erected around the caucus of the academic high school. Braehead's spirit can't be preserved in the lowest streams of the big educational emporium. Streaming itself would kill it anyway.
Bob Mackenzie believes devoutly in the ideals of comprehensive education. But what, for Buckhaven does the term mean? The same sparkling buildings, the same school blazers, the same outward prestige, the same theoretical ability for all to compete after the same, unchangeable academic goals. That's a kind of equality. For working class parents it's the outward equality which matters: creased trousers, stern discipline, doctor's son and scavenger's son "ascending together a ladder which leads from heaven to earth." And never mind if the vast new school, geared to getting the doctor's son into Edinburgh's medical school (150 places, 1,500 applicants), has to stream and push and reject and forget: at lest the public show of equality is there, equality to sit for the same exams, compete for the same immutable academic targets. Mackenzie has fought hard for Braehead's survival.
This Labour insistence on the letter of comprehensivisation (plus his parents natural acceptance of it) has brought him down. The school closes finally next June (1968).
Of course you can argue with him. His contempt for exams, you say, goes to far. His attitude to the externals of "school discipline" runs so much counter to British tradition that naturally he stirs distaste at the Scottish Office. Will the new Buckhaven Comprehensive really submit the children so directly? Doesn't it paint pitch black a picture, which is really speckled with gray? Inevitably such argument misses one important factual, crucial point. Mackenzie hasn't been offered another headship when Braehead closes – not even a post at the comprehensive. "I don't know what I'll do. Maybe go back to class teaching at some little school in the Highlands if they'll have me." The fruit of a decade of experiment, for him, is simple rejection at 57, a blank wall. What huge comprehensive, with a thousand or more children under its roof and no alternative choice for a parent, can affect a headmaster who has novel ideas, who blazes his own trails."
Duaine at Risinghill showed it starkly; Mackenzie underlines the lesson. Big comprehensives can experiment in technical sense, with language laboratories, closed circuit television, all the paraphernalia. But can they afford to cut across established notions of academic excellence or discipline, can they experiment with the children themselves? The answer, as Braehead demonstrates, is drearily predictable. The new system we're building, because it insists on size, complete entry from set catchment areas, inevitable involves consensus education. There is no chance to go out on a limb, to change directions. Comprehensive education means the disintegration of Bob Mackenzie's individual work; well, that's perhaps inescapable and open to debate. But comprehensive education too, seems to leave him without a school to toil for, without horizons to explore. And that is a damning indictment, which must give every educationist pause.