Online Archive  
Issue 6 - June 1972
Progressive Education
Until recently this part of the country has been totally devoid of any radical developments in the sphere of education: the tone of the area being firmly set by the Royal Grammar at Newcastle and the University of Durham - the former having only now caught on to the fashionable sport of enforced haircutting!

These two pillars of society are supported by a whole host of schools, colleges and individuals, who emulate the type of education designed over a century ago, and condemned for the past fifty years (see Dewey, Neill, Reich, et al). The north's 'regional problem' thus extends into the field of education, which is as behind other parts of the country as it is in industrial growth and employment.

A look at the distribution of independent 'progressive' schools in the British Isles makes the north stand out like a boil on the bum - the two nearest being at Wetherby and Castle Douglas - while the south and south-east possess both the 'traditional' progressive schools (Summerhill, Monkton Wyld) and the more recent attempts at community 'education' (Kirkdale in London).

Justification of the retention of nineteenth century methods and attitudes is nowhere valid; state schools in the north achieving less success than most other areas. GCE results are well below those for the nation as a whole (won't bore you with statistics - get these from Dept of Education and Science if you must!); schools and colleges have the lowest number of graduate teachers in England and Wales; there are fewer grammar school places and facilities available, and the region has the lowest percentage of teachers with specialist qualifications in its specialist schools. On top of all this (just a fraction of the anomalies) is the fact that the kids in the north-east have to compete with virtually all the minus factors of education - those disadvantages which accompany every depressed area (unemployment, huge families, no cash, bingo mams etc).

Consequently, it is interesting to note the panic which has shot through the bowels of the above mentioned pillars over the past few months, accompanying the first signs of unrest and dissatisfaction in the area.

Attempts to establish an SAU in the area were quickly squashed through the rapid expulsion of its initiators from training college. Each unofficial (and official!) report which hinted at something amiss in the north was immediately met by a barrage of disdain, shock and horror. Even Sir Alec Clegg - education officer for the West Riding - was met with a tidal wave of opposition when he dared to throw a pebble into the stagnant waters of northern education, suggesting that "Bournemouth and Barnsley" were "worlds apart in terms of educational opportunity". Student evidence of a drug problem in Sunderland schools last summer instigated a warning by return post from the local education authority that no such problem existed and further pursuance of such investigations would result in expulsion. Four months later the percentage of Sunderland pupils taking drugs reached such a height (literally!) that it hit the headlines of the local press. Recurring threats by various headmasters said that if pupils did not improve their appearance, attendance etc, action would be taken, were met with sympathy rather than outcry from the local press and populace. For suggesting in a newspaper article in the 'Sunderland Echo' that the curriculum of schools was irrelevant for life outside, and that there should be more time devoted to sex education and social problems, the writer was attacked (physically!) by a bespectacled, furclad lady in the public library who had suffered the "gross embarrassment" of having to explain to her seventeen-year-old son the meaning of "contraceptive"! The recent pupil demonstrations in London were also met with disdain, "the Journal" demanding that they return to school and "behave themselves", and there be "cured of silly habits like shouting slogans about school power and headmasters' dictatorship". And so the story goes on.

However, over the past few months some developments have been made, and although pretty insignificant by standards elsewhere, it is a start.

Although not strictly of concern to this area (the NE) the success of the Scotland Road Free School in Liverpool, and other community developments in Manchester, Leeds and Hull, are at least knocking on our front door, which has remained untouched for so long that even this effect has taken some time to raise the residents. Recent unrest at Lancaster University is again nearer to home than the LSE, while the SAU is rapidly gaining influence in Liverpool and elsewhere.

Meetings to discuss the Newcastle Free School, while not yet having resulted in anything positive, are an indication of the interest in community projects of this type, and were saved for hassles by police which have accompanied such attempts elsewhere. Both John Orrd of Scotland Road and a speaker from the Manchester Free School have given talks to interested parties. May saw the arrival of Michael Duane (ex-headmaster of Risinghill School and co-editor of 'Children's Rights') at Sunderland Polytechnic, in the first of what looks like being an interesting series of meetings and talks on the subject of "progressive education" (size of audience was most untypical of Sunderland response to this kind of thing - replete with two nuns!). Other developments have taken place and were at least an improvement on the totally dead scene of last year. How long this will last no-one knows, but at least groups of people are coming together to discuss (if not yet practise) ideas and aims. MG has helped (not a plug!) in providing a focal point for such activities, and should continue to do so, providing people don't just sit and ponder over their Brown Ale only to lose any inspiration down the urinator with other good things.

Malcolm Gerris