Episode # 6 – Nigel Talbot Rice, Headmaster of Summer Fields (1975-1997)

In Episode 6 of my Education podcast, I interview the famous Summer Fields Headmaster Nigel Talbot Rice.

Listen on Soundcloud – Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Or on YouTube – Part 1 here (and below) or Part 2 here.

Or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

Nigel joined prep school teaching upon leaving Oxford. He started his career at Papplewick after which he taught at Summer Fields for the rest of his career. He served as the school’s Head Master for 22 years (1975-1997) and is undoubtedly one of the school’s most significant heads in its history.

In this interview, we talk about:

  • His story into teaching – his move from Papplewick into Summer Fields.
  • Differences between Summer Fields then and now.
  • His plans to buy a school in the 1960s – with Summer Fields legend Nick Alridge.
  • His developing educational philosophy – such aspects as behaviour, academics, religious instruction and financial prudence.
  • His thoughts on boarding prep schools now and in the future.


A Liberal Education (1929 style)

Listened yesterday to a tremendous edition of the Charlotte Mason Poetry Podcast, which featured a speech by Horace West Household, the Director of Education for Gloucestershire at the North of England Education Conference in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1929. Can you imagine a Regional Schools Commissioner in 2018 using the same beautiful language or whose vision of a good liberal education was so sound?

The nineteenth century did not believe, and the twentieth is not always willing to admit, or to act as though it admitted, that the worker’s child in the primary school needs, and is capable of enjoying and profiting by, all that is meant by a liberal education. Even the teachers, many of them, declared that they could not when, twelve years ago, I made my first venture in the experiment which I shall describe to you. They could not believe that the child from a poor bookless home could enjoy and profit by the same wide range of study in history ancient and modern, in literature, poetry, art, music, even archaeology, astronomy and the whole romance of science, as his more fortunate contemporary who is bound for Winchester, or Shrewsbury, or Eton.

Then thirty or forty years ago came the text book, written by clever teachers in a language and manner peculiar to school text books and met with nowhere else, constructed to fit in with the method of oral teaching and of imparting information, and with this depreciatory conception of the child as a being, retarded and crippled in mind by the material and intellectual poverty of his whole environment. How should he, born of such a stock, coming from such a home, love great poetry and drama, rejoice to make contact with great minds and through them with great thoughts and great events, range eager and excited over the whole field of history, thrill to the tale of Thermopylae and Salamis, take Plutarch for his mentor in the school of citizenship, revel in the wizardry of Scott, or roam over a world of waters with Odysseus or Sir Francis Drake? So he was fobbed off with these dreary text books, which no normal adult would dream of reading, nor any normal child save on dire compulsion. And to this day a young teacher—and many an old one—cannot read poetry to a class, no, not of twelve-year-olds, without halting at every stanza to explain the obvious at interminable length, incredulous of the child’s capacity to understand, forgetful of his own childish enjoyment out of school (rarely, alas, within it) when some good reader made him thrill to the music of verse read as it should be read, or swept him along upon the tide of some great prose story, which one pause for explanation or for question would have ruined. We will ask the child to see all that the adult sees, forgetting that the fifty per cent. that he gets to-day (there are to-morrows and to-morrows still to come) is worth infinitely more than the one hundred per cent. that we would force upon him; and so we cast a blight upon literature and history, and geography and science; and for the priceless gold of knowledge won by thought and made his own, we foist upon the child the pitiful dross of information, forced, rammed at high pressure, in machine-made chunks by class-teaching upon the collective memory, where it withers unassimilated, and most often perishes leaving no mark behind.

Read the rest here, or listen to the podcast here.

Charlotte Mason vs Montessori

I listened to a great episode of the Charlotte Mason Poetry podcast on a run yesterday. It featured a letter, written by CM herself, explaining how her differed from that of Maria Montessori’s.

The whole letter, which is very short, is really worth reading or listening to – is there any educationalist alive today who writes with such panache? – but I particularly cheered at these two excerpts,

The Montessori child has no such chances; he sharpens a single sense, to be sure, at the expense of another and higher sense, but there is no gradual painting in of a background to his life; no fairies play about him, no heroes stir his soul; God and good angels form no part of his thoughts; the child and the person he will become are a scientific product, the result of much touching and some seeing and hearing; for what has science to do with those intangible, hardly imaginable entities called ideas?

The one is the method of scientific, the other that of humane, pedagogy. The cultivation of the organs of sense and of muscular activity belongs to both, but the rationale is in each case different. To take a single example, the scientific pedagogue (awful designation!) lets a child sort multitudes of tablets into colours and shades of colour, with a dim faith that perhaps his brain will be occupied in secreting delectable thoughts about various and beautiful coloured objects. The humane teacher, who has his own psychology, knows that the child with tablets is mentally paving the school-room, the street, the town, the whole world, with little squares of colour. Therefore, if he decide to teach at all what children learn incidentally, he gives a child leaves and flowers, beads, patches of silk and velvet, things carrying associations and capable of begetting ideas; and the child does not pave streets, but does “a stately pleasure dome decree,” where are “gardens bright with sinuous rills and sunny spots of greenery.”


Charlotte Mason Retreat | Lake District | May 2018

A quick post to promote what looks like a glorious opportunity to reflect on Charlotte Mason’s work AND hear from the peerless Malcolm Guite in the splendour of the Lake District later this month.

To quote from the website,

Charlotte Mason Institute’s English Lake District Retreat

The Afternoon of 30 April – the Morning of 4 May 2018

St. Mary’s Church, Ambleside, England, UK

Wordsworth referred to the Lake District as “An unwalled university all dedicated to plain living and high thinking.”  Come join us at the 2018 English Lake District Retreat as we share a time of learning more about Charlotte Mason. And, join us as we enjoy the “unwalled university” through exploring the towns of Ambleside, Grasmere, Rydal, and the lush green country lanes, gardens and fells (hills) around where Mason lived from 1890 until her death in 1923.  Imagine yourself taking her daily horse carriage ride through country roads observing the birds, flowers, and the changing of the seasons. But most of all imagine yourself enjoying the tranquility of the Lake District and the contentment of being with others interested in learning more about this amazing educator.

We welcome Malcolm Guite, poet, musician, and authority on Coleridge (and others) as our keynote speaker.  The Rev’d Dr. Guite will provide several sessions including learning how to read and enjoy poetry, singing and more.  We will also enjoy Dr. Rachel Johnson sharing with us her study on Mason’s idea of living books through the works of George MacDonald and G. A. Henty.  You will also experience sessions designed to reflect conferences at the House of Education attended by teachers who had graduated.   

There will be time for visits to the Armitt Gallery Museum and Library where you can explore the Mason Archive.  Through the helpful assistance of the Armitt Curator, Deborah Walsh and the Armitt Trustees we will enjoy a reception late Monday afternoon, 30 April 2018 at the Armitt. Following this time at the Armitt we will walk up the lane and enjoy a time of singing and poetry with Malcolm Guite on the campus of the House of Education and what is now the University of Cumbria.

There will be excursions including hikes, nature walks with naturalists and more.  


Read more and book here: https://www.charlottemasoninstitute.com/page-18575 


PS And here is a photo of me in front of Charlotte Mason’s House of Education, Scale How, from earlier this year.


Episode #5 – Jason Fletcher, founding Headmaster of Heritage School Cambridge

In this interview, I talk with Jason Fletcher, founding Headmaster of Heritage School in Cambridge.

Heritage is the only school I am aware of that is committed to (and actively promotes) a Charlotte Mason education in the UK. In our conversation, Jason explains its unique pertinence to the educational priorities of our times.

Listen on Soundcloud here.

Or on YouTube here or below.

Or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

We discuss,

  • The fight against apathy and disenchantment
  • The founding of Heritage
  • Charlotte Mason – her history and philosophy
  • How exam preparation distorts ‘true education’
  • Living ideas / books vs “Twaddle”
  • The natural attractiveness of knowledge
  • Narrative history and the importance of giving children a “plausible story” about the past
  • The teaching method of Narration: how it distinguishes itself from spoon-feeding and how it helps children improve their attention (which is in ‘crisis’)
  • The role of the teacher – “masterly inactivity”
  • Christian education and working across faith boundaries
  • The Christian view of the Person – the “mystery of the person” – vs Locke’s blank slate
  • Education as “the Science of Relations”
  • Growth mindset
  • Optimism and anti-reductionism
  • Heritage’s approach to behaviour and discipline; how to create a calm school.
  • The importance of aesthetics in a school
  • Jason’s anti-bureaucratic style of leadership in the school – e.g. in guidance on lesson planning and reporting
  • The Book of Centuries
  • Cross-disciplinary / interdisciplinary education – how to do it properly and how not to do it
  • Nature Study and Nature Walks in the Seasons; environmental education.
  • Charges of “Retreatism”, Luddism or Romanticism. How does Charlotte Mason prepare children for the 21st Century? Answer: the importance of the will. The “directed life”.
  • How counter-cultural Heritage is in its promotion of the “richer things” vs technology, e.g. Smartphones vs dumbphones. iPads vs attention and ruminating on the text; going against the tide.

Links from the episode

  • The Charlotte Mason supporters I dimly mentioned were: Anne Clough, the first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; Dorothea Beale, principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College; and Frances Buss, headmistress of the North London Collegiate School.
  • I wrote a separate blogpost about Charlotte Mason here.
  • Heritage’s website
  • Jason’s mother in law’s book that began the Heritage story
  • The Tech-Wise Family – mentioned towards the end
  • The PNEU
  • An example of Narration in action at Ambleside Schools in the US.

A Pedagogy of Perception

Image result for blake trees

“The wise man sees a different tree from the fool.”

William Blake

When you look at a tree, what do you see? Imagine that we ask this question to a class of teenagers as they near the end of their schooling. What would they say? Would Blake say that they had answered “wisely” or “foolishly”?

This piece will examine the merits of asking such questions in our schools, and what the responses might suggest about the education schools are providing. My hunch is that our class of teenagers would answer something like the following. Some would no doubt believe the question itself to be foolish but most would be eager to prove how well they had absorbed the GCSE Science curriculum. “We see… photosynthesis in action! … the lungs of our planet! …the heart of our ecosystem! …home to bugs and birds! …logs for the winter fire! …a table for dinner! … employment for timber merchants and lumberjacks.” And so on. My hunch is that few children would answer in the manner of a John Muir (“between every two pines is a doorway to a new world”) or a Coleridge or a Roger Deakin (“to enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed”). And that this is less because they lack the means of expression than that they lack of the means of feeling.

In other words, like many who argue in favour of trees, if a teenager cares about trees today, though she may be appalled by the threats of deforestation and climate change, she will likely do so for reasons that rarely rise above the utilitarian. If this is true, it should trouble us as teachers because it means that a richer relationship with the natural world has not been disclosed to her. Children are being left blind to a relationship with trees that previous generations took for granted and which they themselves might have felt in an earlier stage of development. They are seeing in a sense half a tree; an impoverished and lifeless thing robbed of any larger meaning. And though I have chosen to write about trees, substitute almost any proper noun you care to think of: homes, horses and historical figures have been similarly cut down to size.

We might call this “richer relationship” a “participatory” relationship. Children have been denied a sense of their participation with trees. When it has been properly cultivated, perception of this participatory relationship can make the world positively pullulate with meaning. Such cultivation is by no means the only responsibility of the teacher – but it is a worthy one, and it is almost completely ignored. This short piece argues for its reconsideration.


Briefly, what do I mean by a perception of participation? Across a range of fields, in art and science, it has been shown that “the viewer partakes in the viewed.” This is expressed with different nuance and emphasis across a wide range of disciplines, but the similarity is more striking than the differences. Plato, “the virtuous man sees differently from wicked man.” Titus, “to the pure, all things are pure.” Coleridge, we “receive but what we give”. Proust, “the real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.” Iain McGilchrist, “the type of attention we pay to a thing determines what we see.” Sam Harris, “how we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience.” I have collected a whole file of others! Anyone who has seen Simons and Chabris’ gorilla experiment will have also been struck by its profound implications. We only seem to see what we’re expecting.

This is not to say that we each create our own world. The objective world – the table on which I write and the cup of coffee by my side – has a reality with a concreteness about which all would agree. But you do not have to be a Post-Truth relativist to say.. only up to a point. We may disagree with the exact percentages assigned by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey (…of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create, / And what perceive…) but surely we can say that we bring something – and something important – to and into our perception. As Iain McGilchrist writes, “we neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality…there is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that in turn ‘calls forth’ something in the world.”


If our perception can be participatory in theory, is there any sense in which this might be the case in practice. Let’s go back to our class of teenagers looking at the tree. To what degree might we say that they can participate with it?

  1. Their degree of sensory acuity. Married to an artist, I am aware that even sensory perception varies wildly. Shades of white and green that I can detect via a Dulux index card, she is able to pick out with enviable ease. Lucky children will have had their native sensory talents trained, so whereas one child might see the trunk as brown, another might actually see it as “burnt umber”. This is a richer – a better! – perception. In ways I suggest below, we can train this habit of seeing and attending to the world, and we should.
  2. Their ability to name. Talk of burnt umber brings me to the important power of naming in perception. It is one of the charming mysteries of perception that once we learn the name of something, we see or hear it pop up all over the place. This was Robert Macfarlane’s fear when the Oxford Junior Dictionary was recently updated with the words acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell and buttercup replaced by attachment, block­graph, bullet ­point and committee. If we cannot name something, often we cannot see it. Those children who had learned the name of ash or cedar would have seen this tree differently, better.
  3. Their imagination. But the part of perception that is most supplied by the viewer is that which can’t be supplied through the senses. It is that which is supplied by the imagination. It is the imagination that beams out of our eyes – Blake said we see “through, not with” the eye; Philip Pullman that imagination is a “way of seeing” – and it distorts the viewed to its own design. The way some people talk about the imagination, you would think it was another mere instrument for material success in the creative industries. But if it is well trained, it can enchant, animate and vitalise the world. The tree can once again dance before our eyes like it has to countless fortunate souls through the ages.

It is to that training we turn now.


Image result for van gogh trees

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

William Blake

It is said that when Whistler was learning to paint in a new style, a woman complained when looking at one of his canvasses. “Well I never saw a sunset that looked like that,” she said. To which Whistler replied, “But Madam, don’t you wish you could?”

Either we have to write off the perception of artists and naturalists through the ages as delusional or a rare fluke, or we must conclude that they had access to something that most of us miss out on because of distraction or lack of proper training. We should want children to experience the world in this more vivid way. More and more children experience the opposite – a growing alienation from the world, a growing cerebralisation whereby they become trapped in the prison of their own self-consciousness, unable to fully participate with the world. The “Shades of the prison-house begin to close /Upon the growing Boy.”

In one sense, our job is a negative one. We should be alert to what form these “shades” might take and try to prevent their encroachment. I have a particular fear of the word “only” for growing children myself, as in “You fool! That grove of trees by the edge of the park that you thought was a magical wood is only a thin line built to mark the border with the supermarket.” etc.  Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after growing up.” Rousseau, “Nature wants children to be children before being men. If we want to pervert this order, we shall produce pernicious fruits which will be immature and insipid and will not be long in rotting….Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it.”

However, there are more positive jobs to do too. As teachers, we can influence what a child “brings” to his perception, even beyond the capabilities with which he has naturally been endowed. How might we do this?

Here I intend merely to point to a few directions of travel, along the paths suggested above.

Sensory Acuity – Attention Exercises

We said above that a child’s powers of attention can be trained. In a world of attention deficit, it is even more important. How can teachers and parents do this?

  • Sensory Deprivation. One of the best ways to enhance one sense is to block out others. Blindfolds (e.g can you pick out a tree in a wood that you have only encountered when blindfolded?) and ear-plugs (e.g. lying in a field and writing down what one sees and feels) are invaluable aids to reflection. The best series of exercises are those suggested by Joseph Cornell in his Sharing Nature books, and children should be invited to enjoy such exercises regularly.
  • Close Inspection. As we grow older, we seem to be further and further removed from the practice of investigating the world at first hand. This should not be so. Games such as Shrunk (using a magnifying glass in nature and describing what one sees) or dropping a wooden square and limiting one’s descriptions to its contents help delimit the scope of children’s attention. We should help children develop the habit of becoming rapt, a word that still carries with it its amplified meaning of rapture.
  • Hunting. Bug Hunts; Tree and Flower Hunts; Cloud Hunts; Colour Hunts. Perhaps more sensuously designed field guides for children and teenagers could give more verve to the sport, and smart phones – properly used – could be of great service, especially if they add a competitive element. A leaf identification app has greatly helped me see more and see better.
  • Breathing. Mindfulness has become common practice in UK schools, and rightly so. The ability to use breath to still the mind should be second nature to teenagers, and is a special aid in the appreciation of nature.
  • Drawing / Craft. Most children, except those singled out as gifted, work less and less frequently with their hands as they grow older. The effects of these pursuits are too often only considered with respect to the quality of their output, rather than their impact on children’s attention. Sketching an animal’s footprint, taking a rubbing from the bark of a tree, making a bird’s nest / a crown / a mask / a dream-catcher / a Green Man can all help children see the world. Ruskin, “if you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.”
  • Context engineering. The Romantics wanted their poetry to “defamiliarise” their readers, their diction and imagery chosen to pierce the “film of familiarity.” Canny teachers can engineer context (e.g. what constitutes a classroom; who constitutes a teacher) to achieve the same effect and help their students see the world anew.

Of course, it may be that such activities are even richer when combined. Children could for example be played Debussy’s water music – training their ears – and be asked to respond using a ranging of materials from acrylic to sand. As long as training attention is held as a priority, anything can be attempted.

Naming – Knowledge Exercises

“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it… These familiar flowers, these well­ remembered bird­ notes, this sky, with its fitful brightness,these furrowed and grassy fields… such things as these are the mother ­tongue of our imagination.”

George Eliot

Children used to learn the names of things more than they do today. In the 1950s, many schools had a regular Nature Study period in which children would learn the names of different trees, birds, flowers and their parts. It is my belief that these children therefore saw more than they do today.

It was easy to characterise such lessons as mindless or rote, but it was a mistake to do so. The champagne was thrown out with the cork. It is possible for teachers to pass on such names with zest. The evolving practice of mnemonics, buffeted by the proliferation of Mind Maps and fun technology like LeafSnap and Memrise, has made this even easier.

What is required, then, is a vibrant new series of books, field guides, “knowledge organisers” and the like that can introduce vocabulary and knowledge of the natural world to a new generation. Until that point, there are plenty of old books that will do the job – and parents/teachers can of course make their own. Nouns are one thing, but it is also possible to memorise a rich and expanding store of verbs, thereby animating the world with motion. How much easier to see a tree’s leaves in detail when one sees it leaves not just waving, but trembling, quivering, rippling.

Rather than being mistaken as mindless and mechanical, Memory is rebooted in this way to its older form, a dynamic way of interacting with and of seeing the world.

Imagination – Imaginative Exercises

With memory once again enthroned as an engine of perception, children should then be encouraged to use the contents of their memory in imaginative, “forgetive” (in Owen Barfield’s phrase) ways. Here are a few ideas, very few of them my own:

  • Imaginative writing, including poetry writing. When taught for the purpose of passing exams, creative writing can be reduced to something of a box-ticking exercise: “include one simile, one metaphor etc.” When seen as an agent of perception, it can help forge new connectedness in the minds of children. The anthropomorphisation of otherwise inanimate objects is especially effective in this regard, giving agency and consciousness to things that usually characterised as inert and mechanical. As recommended by the Poetry Foundation, “one of the pleasures of writing poems is that you can tell lies without getting into trouble! It’s just using your imagination…Encourage children to be wild and imaginative with their lies avoiding the obvious or the dull (the moon is made of cheese).  Give them a few examples of what they could write: e.g. The sea is made of blue ink and green paint; The sea hates it when it’s drawn as a wavy line.” Generally, despite what I wrote earlier about exam-preparation, structure should not be seen as the enemy of the imagination. Thought-provoking structured exercises such as Describe This Painting or Describe a Photograph ( • Who is the subject of the photograph/poem?  What makes you think of them?  Where they are most likely to be,  what they would be doing, what they would be wearing?  What objects might they be holding or have near them? • Decide the moment that the shutter clicks.  Catch your subject in movement or stillness.  Imagine how they would look,  what gesture or expression the photograph has caught.) can produce unprecedented imaginative responses for children who have not had prior practice.
  • Anthropomorphic Games. For children put off by creative writing, anthropomorphic exercises can be done orally too. Tree Stories, for example – children decide what type of person a tree / flower / etc would be if they could talk. Or Role-playing: children imaginatively inhabit a dandelion or a woodpecker and imagine life from their perspective. So much children’s literature can aid teachers in this respect, and the characters of these inanimate objects can be drawn out, discussed and legitimised.
  • Inventing names for colours. This is a great metaphor-making game, which helps children to pay attention but also to vivify the world for them. Children should be encouraged to think about shades, tones, subtle differences and where the colour is found. They should be encouraged to be as inventive as possible, e.g sunken treasure cove aquamarine. Children can use colour charts for specialist paint companies (all available online) as inspiration.
  • More metaphor-making games. These were also suggested by the excellent Poetry Foundation. “Anthony Wilson will often begin by holding up a triangle of plain paper and asking pupils what it is – it’s a hat, a headscarf, a sail, a mountain, a sandwich,  a bikini bottom…  The pupils  immediately get the idea and love using their imaginations to transform the one-dimensional shape into a range of alternative objects of differing scale.” Lawrence Bradby “uses a large ball of paper –a cauliflower,  a planet slowly turning on its axis,  a tear rolling down a face  –and then develops this to make a list poem,  using many children’s ideas and shaping the poem together.”


“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me…Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration….Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. ”

Emerson, Essay on Nature

We are frequently told that we live in an empirical and reductive age, in which nothing is of value unless it can be measured. I nevertheless find it interesting and encouraging that many of the innovations that have taken hold in education in recent years have been as interested in the interior as the exterior, e.g. growth mindset, mindfulness and wellbeing.

Utilitarian materialism supplies a meagre dollop of meaning to the viewed – merely the utile. But when we sit beneath a tree and feel a subliminal aesthetic calm in a way we (certainly I!) cannot put into the words, we feel the distant echo of a relationship that has too often been undernourished. If we are ever going to encourage children to see the world more richly, it will come through the enhancement of the above faculties. It might not need to happen in the classroom; it could happen in lunchtime clubs, on the weekends and in the holidays. Some such as First Hand Experiences and our Imaginarium are trying. I hope this piece has made the case for why doing so is both important and possible. Join us!

Affordable independent schools

(First published in the Autumn Newsletter for the CRE)

The latest news from the Independent Grammar School, a new affordable independent school in Durham reads as follows:

“We have been delighted that, without advertising as such, we have had almost 100 expressions of interest.  That confirms our view that there is a real demand for the kind of school we are proposing, and that we are likely to have more than enough children to make the school viable.”

IGS Durham offers a “no frills” independent school education to families who could not otherwise afford one, using “fresh, new teachers” in “unpretentious” facilities for £52 per week (£2,700 per year). Why are poor parents drawn to it when they can educate their children in schools with better facilities, more experienced teachers, for free?

The reasons are likely to be the same reasons a majority say they would choose an independent school over a state school if they could afford it.

The education of the individual child, rather than the education of a cohort – be it class, year group, school or local authority – is the animating principle of independent education.

State school pupils, in contrast, are confined to tabulated data sets in order that their ‘progress’ can be measured as a cohort. Schools are motivated more by an average lift in scores across these cohorts than they are by educating an individual child. This difference in emphasis, not always immediately obvious to parents new to the systems, underpins five key characteristics of independent schools:

  1. Behaviour.

State schools tend to measure bad behaviour by cohort targets, such as whether the number of exclusions or truancies has risen or fallen, rather than think about the effect of bad behaviour on individual children. Bad behaviour is frequently cited (e.g. by the Independent Schools Council) as a top reason why parents choose the independent sector. And low-level classroom disruption is also frequently cited by stressed out state schoolteachers as their reason for leaving the profession.

  1. High standards.

Because of their focus on the one rather than on the many, an independent school teacher is more likely to ask, “How can I stretch this pupil as far as he or she is able to go?” than “How can I ensure that as many of my class as possible get a grade C/level 4 at GCSE?”

  1. Pastoral care and growth of the whole person.

For the same reasons, good independent schools do not just focus on the borderline ‘pass’/’fail’ pupils in order to boost the pass rate of a cohort. They are much more likely to ensure that all pupils receive equal attention in all areas, both academic and non-academic. From this flows a genuine commitment to extracurricular activities and the development of confidence-building interpersonal skills such as public speaking.

  1. Curriculum.

“All children will be asked to learn nursery rhymes and poems”, IGS Durham promises. “ Things that, once learned in primary school, may well remain with them for life.” An education rooted in individual growth understands the richness that a broad curriculum can bring. Independent schools seek to offer History, Geography, Foreign Languages and so on because they are valuable in themselves, not because they are the prescribed outputs of the National Curriculum.

  1. Sense over nonsense

The easiest policy answer to any mental/social health scare is to make changes to the National Curriculum. State school children are now forced to learn a welter of “politicised” information pertaining more to their lifestyles (usually around sex, identity, gender, sustainable living etc) than their knowledge of a subject. Independent schools, freer from the state’s imperatives to prioritise such issues, can choose more judiciously – most of the time, choosing common sense over nonsense.

One of the most compelling advantages of a state school is that it is usually local, embedded in the life of a community, allowing children to make local friends from a variety of backgrounds. It is early days yet but if schools like IGS Durham can bring localism and diversity to the private sector, combining their offer with independent school levels of communication with that community, such affordable schools could begin to challenge the state sector up and down the country.

PS In a recent development, it seems as though a simlarly-inspired school will start in Edinburgh too: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15610509.Ex_CBI_chief_s_backing_for___52_a_week_Scots_private_schools

Charlotte Mason – who was she, and what is her relevance?

Who was Charlotte Mason?

Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923) was a teacher and educational writer who lived and worked all over the UK. Orphaned at 16, she taught both as a governess and as a classroom teacher. Despite suffering ill health for much of her life, she founded a teacher training college at Ambleside for governesses and parents who wanted to educate their children at home. She also lectured widely, co-founding the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) with Anne Clough, the first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; Dorothea Beale, principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College; and Frances Buss, headmistress of the North London Collegiate School. She campaigned for a “liberal education for all”, regardless of social class.

Her work had been almost completely neglected since WWII but was rediscovered and republished at the end of the 20th Century, leading to a mild resurgence of Charlotte Mason’s educational methods – especially in the US. Her work proved initially popular with the US homeschool community, and has only been re-realized in a school setting since the founding of Ambleside Schools International in 2000. She is still little known in the country of her birth, however. For more about CM’s life and ideas, read here.


What were her ideas, and what do they have to say to educators today?

I have found CM’s writing full of life, wisdom and pertinence for the 21st Century. If you have some spare time, the best way to get a sense of her thought – which is a method more than it is a system – is to plunge into her books – free online here. (Home Education is for ages up to 9; School Education from 9-12; and A Philosophy of Education, her final book, is an overview of her whole approach.)

Here are a few of her ideas, which might inform, challenge or anchor some of what teachers do today. She had a great way with words, so I include a few quotations below.

  1. A passionate commitment to knowledge and ideas. CM thought that children had a “hunger” for knowledge, and that education was “the science of relations” – an initiation into the complex web of knowledge the world. She was anti-utilitarian, promoting knowledge of history, science, painting, music, architecture, Shakespeare etc. very much for their own sake. Ideas are the “food of the mind…a spiritual germ endowed with vital force – with power to grow.” Her curriculum and lesson ideas are available here.
  2. Reading – the centrepiece of her educational method. CM believed in “living books” written in a narrative / literary style, not dry or artificial “twaddle” that had been written down to children. After much trial and error, she believed that Narration was the most potent method of learning, whereby students were required to tell back, in their own words (either orally or in writing) what they had read or heard, in order to secure it in their minds. Here is a video example of Narration done today in the US by ASI, and I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else who has experimented with this method.
  3. Character education. Charlotte Mason believed that “children are born persons”—neither good nor bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil. She believed in authority, but an authority checked by the respect due to persons. She did not like schools run on the incentives of grades and prizes. CM was also a big believer in the training of habit, which she thought could be improved by narration (above), nature study (below) and lesson length. Lessons up to Year 4 were 15 or 20 minutes; up to Year 7 were 20-30 mins. Sample schedules are here. She has lots to say on the subject of character development generally. This book goes into more detail on habit training, and this page from ASI lists some other aspects of her philosophy pertaining to character.
  4. Nature education. “Let them once touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life…the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes – moor and meadow, park, common, or shore – where he may find new things to examine, and so observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis for scientific knowledge.” Children should be outside ½ day per week, especially in the early years. She recommends that children keep nature journals, and do lots of Science outside too. A really good series of nature study books have been developed to realize her nature education ideas. More on her lesson ideas here.

Even allowing her some room for exaggeration, the results of her method on children (many of whom came from very humble backgrounds) were miraculous, the more so compared to children taught today.

Here are the Proper Nouns used in an exam by a typical 10 year old in one of her schools (detailed here):  

“I once had the names used by a child of ten in an examination paper counted; there were well over a hundred, of which these are the “a’s”:—Africa, Alsace-Lorraine, Antigonous, Abdomen, Antennae, Aphis, Antwerp, Alder, America, Amsterdam, Austria-Hungary, Ann Boleyn, Antarctic, Atlantic; and these are the “m’s”:—Megalopolis, Maximilian, Milan, Martin Luther, Mary of the Netherlands, Messina, Macedonia, Magna Charta, Magnet, Malta, Metz, Mediterranean, Mary Queen of Scots, Treaty of Madrid: upon all these subjects the children wrote as freely and fully as if they were writing to an absent sister about a new family of kittens!”

Here’s an excerpt from a 10 year old’s essay.

And here’s one from a 14 year old’s essay.


Charlotte Mason in her own words

Her Educational vision…

“Children brought up on this theory of education, wherever we come across them, have certain qualities in common. They are curiously vitalised; not bored, not all alive in the playing-field and dull and inert in the schoolroom––even when it is that place, proverbial for dullness, a home school-room taught by a governess. There is unity in their lives; they are not two persons, one with their play-fellows and quite other with their teachers and elders; but frank, fresh, showing keen interest in whatever comes in their way Then, too, there is continuity in their education. Little children are always eager to know; but the desire for knowledge seldom survives two or three years of school-life. But these children begin on lines that go on from the first baby lessons, through boyhood, girlhood, womanhood, motherhood; there is no transition stage, but simple, natural, living progress.”

On Knowledge…

“The child’s capacity for knowledge is very limited; his mind is, in this respect at least, but a little phial with a narrow neck; and, therefore, it behoves the parent or teacher to pour in only of the best…professional teachers, whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting it from the worthless flood.”

On the Humanities…

“The Great Human Relationships.––Perhaps the main part of a child’s education should be concerned with the great human relationships, relationships of love and service, of authority and obedience, of reverence and pity and neighbourly kindness; relationships to kin and friend and neighbour, to ’cause’ and country and kind, to the past and the present. History, literature, archaeology, art, languages, whether ancient or modern, travel and tales of travel; all of these are in one way or other the record or the expression of persons; and we who are persons are interested in all persons, for we are all one flesh, we are all of one spirit, and whatever any of us does or suffers is interesting to the rest. If we will approach them with living thought, living books, if we will only awaken in them the sense of personal relation, there are thousands of boys and girls to-day capable of becoming apostles, saviours, great orientalists who will draw the East and the West together, great archaeologists who will make the past alive for us and make us aware in our souls of men who lived thousands of years ago.”

“Here, too, is a subject which should be to the child an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas, should enrich the chambers of his House Beautiful with a thousand tableaux, pathetic and heroic, and should form in him, insensibly, principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behaviour of nations, and will rule his own conduct as one of a nation.”

On Habit…

“Habit, in the hands of the teacher, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver––the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain.”

Education Philosophy – 3 FAQ

(First published on the Keystone blog here.)

Parents today take a more active interest in their children’s education than the generation or two that preceded them, so that it’s not unusual for those of us working in education to be asked our views on a “growth mindset” one day or the “outdatedness of the 19th century factory model of education” the next.

However, a little information can be a dangerous thing and many of today’s trendiest educationalists often present arguments which sound irresistible… but require further scrutiny. This imaginary conversation looks at three of the most common.

  1. Most of the jobs of the 21st century haven’t even been invented yet, so why is education the same as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries?

Before going any further, we need to examine carefully the factual premises on which such claims are frequently based. As David Didau shows here, the claim made in one of the most influential viral videos on this question (called Shift Happens) and repeated elsewhere that “the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004” was bogus; in fact, the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 included accountant, biologist and dental hygienist. In other words, it is likely that children starting school aged 5 this year will leave at 18 to find a far more recognisable job sector than is often suggested; the job market is not changing fast enough to justify a completely new way of educating (even if such a ‘new way’ were effective, which as you’ll read below I don’t believe it is.) This article digs into the argument in more depth, and these pieces in the Telegraph and Independent report on the top ten in demand jobs in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

  1. Even so, this is the 21st Century! Surely children should not be forced to study a stuffy old curriculum with Latin, French, history dates, countries and capitals etc… they can just Google these after all. Mandarin, coding etc. are much more useful, not to mention 21st century skills and habits such as creativity, research, teamwork, mindfulness etc.

Firstly, these “21st Century skills” are rarely anything of the sort. As Daisy Christodoulou points out here, they are skills of timeless importance, as essential in ages gone by as they are today.

Such skills are the by-products of a good education. Paradoxically, if these skills are made the explicit focus of a curriculum – e.g. lessons in creativity; lessons in teamwork; lessons in research etc. – the skills themselves are less well developed than a curriculum focused on a “stuffy old curriculum”. The great example is Shakespeare, one of the most creative men ever to have written, whose education was simple and traditional, based on the stuffiest of stuffy curriculums. (See more here.) And always remember that Mark Zuckerberg himself studied Latin.

Why is this paradox so? Because when skills are made the explicit focus, they are prioritised over knowledge – and it is knowledge which truly underpins vital 21st century skills like creativity. (Watch this point debated here.) We forget how important knowledge is because we have so much of it already – a principle called “expertise-induced blindness” – but, without it, lessons are reduced to vacuous shells which do little to build up the skills you so treasure. Why do these lessons do so little? Being skills-led, they are often taught in either a Group or Project-based way – and both of these ways of learning have been convincingly undermined in recent years. (See this piece on Group-work and this on project-based learning. Watch a great debate on project-based learning here.)

As for why you can’t just Google it, read this excellent piece by E D Hirsch on how knowledge doesn’t quite work like that. Daisy summarises it here and again here.

  1. Okay, but you’ll grant the point about Mandarin and coding. Not being able to master these disciplines in today’s world is a great impediment, no?

Mandarin and coding are great subjects – intellectually demanding, perhaps genuinely useful. Like other subjects, they’re not for everyone – some estimates say that it takes 6 years of school Mandarin before you can have a conversation in China – and are of course now frequently offered in schools.

But we must remember the concept of ‘opportunity cost’. An hour a week doing mindfulness, Mandarin or coding is an hour not doing another subject. There is not room in a busy year’s curriculum for everything and trade-offs have to be made. What we do know, following the very influential work of E D Hirsch, is that the more ‘core knowledge’ a curriculum contains, the more it is of benefit to children.

A final plea: we live in a utilitarian age but since when did education become solely to be justified by how well it prepares children for the job market? Is there no larger purpose? As Claire Fox said at the Festival of Education a few summers ago, it is more important that children read King Lear than learn how to code…and no research paper would ever convince her otherwise. Do others have the confidence to make such value judgements? The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff of a more liberal education is intellectual liberation. To walk down Cromwell Road blind to the historical allusion, or even to listen to the tune of a blackbird and robin deaf as to the difference, should be evidence enough of an incomplete education; it is strange and rather sad that ours is the first age neither to know nor feel this.