Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Paying a debt

Paying a debt

I write this blog as I travel back (on a train) from Birmingham, where I've been speaking at the Alternative Educational Futures Conference. A special event to mark the memory of the late Professor Roland Meighan, to whom I owe a great debt.

Roland taught for a couple of decades and more at the University of Birmingham's Education Department. Author of Alternative Educational Futures and the seminal A Society of Educating, he researched and wrote extensively on, as you'd expect, alternatives to mainstream schooling.

He famously supported some home-schooling families against hostile education authorities who took them to court (and lost, partly thanks to Roland). He investigated such concepts as breaking huge, impersonal schools down into mini-schools, promoted school councils and school democracy (long before the term Student Voice was coined), advocated flexi-schooling as a bridge between full-time school and complete home education, and above all, tirelessly challenged the sort of slopping thinking that too often encourages policy-makers, school leaders and even teachers to treat children as if they are all the same - all raw materials in a sausage-factory approach to education (politicians are still prone to it).

He was out there on the wacky fringe of educational thinking, yet his thinking was always underpinned by detailed research, sharp analysis and most importantly, a deep humanity and concern for the welfare of children and the respect that should be accorded to them.

People are sometimes amazed that this head of two academically selective independent grammar (former) schools should be befriended and profoundly influenced by someone who was essentially a de-schooler! So let me explain...

In 1990 I was close to finishing a MEd course at Birmingham and about to take up the headship of Wolverhampton Grammar School. I had completed the necessary and obvious modules on policy, management and law and fancied something a bit different. On the menu I spotted one called Alternative Educational Futures (like his book as I was to discover). And so I met Roland.

I was young, energetic and passionate about wanting to lead my school to success. I had some strong views: I knew that teachers needed to be treated with respect and I was committed to hearing their views. I knew that schools needed to communicate better with parents and vowed to keep in regular contact with and listen to them.

But, like many heads (and politicians) before and after me, I was in danger of being so focused on excellent organisation that I overlooked the people at the heart of the school and its purpose, the children!

A term spent with Roland, once a week in twilight sessions, changed all that. My school introduced a school council and committed itself to open and democratic practices. And if those were the symbolic structures, the reality was one of putting children and their needs at the heart of everything the school did. That sounds obvious nowadays, it wasn't a quarter of a century ago.

A dissertation for the MEd developed into a PhD thesis (completed in 1996), based on action research into changes in the school culture and linking them to an inexorable rise in measurable outcomes achieved. Roland was one of the examiners for my PhD, as rigorous and demanding as ever. We kept in touch ever since, until his early death a couple of years ago. Still at heart a de-schooler, he would smile quizzically and ask me if I was still successfully 'rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic'.

I think I was, and am. In my mainstream school - well, mainstream in terms of structure, but mercifully independent of government, its diktats and at least some of its lunatic pressures and measures, though not of regulation - we promote just so many of the concepts and approaches that Roland advocated in his relentlessly quiet, understated, but persuasive way.

He, and the American educational philosopher John Holt before him, knew and wrote about the need to preserve and develop children's natural propensity for effective learning long before such present-day researchers such as Professor Carol Dweck, formulated the concept of growth mindset. Now we're all talking about it - rightly so, if arguably years too late!

Children's happiness wasn't at the heart of schools' agendas in 1990, though it was in Roland's. Now schools know and act on the fact that only a happy and confident child will learn and grow (it wasn't rocket science was it?).

To be successful learners, children (and adults), need to be in control of their learning, to be confident in themselves and always, I'd add, to have compassion for the people around them, and for their world.

At RGS we are striving to ensure that the child as an individual is absolutely and unequivocally the focus of all our work. We are giving students the best experience we can. Their happiness is paramount, and they can enhance it through wonderful opportunities to learn in and out of the classroom, to feel empowered, and to surprise themselves with what they can achieve. 

Why not come and hear me speak on RGS Day (Saturday 2 July, 10.30am in the Main Hall), when I'll be unveiling more detail of our specific plans for helping our girls and boys to develop the qualities essential to highly effective learners.

I often hear Roland Meighan's voice in my mind. I remember that smile, and I hear that quiet voice asking, 'Still arranging the deckchairs?'

I pause, then reply to my mentor: 'I'll just slip up to the bridge and check our course. Keeping an eye out for icebergs. You can't be too careful...'

Bernard Trafford