Arthur Mellows Memorial Lecture 1970

This lecture was given by Sir Alec Clegg, Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1970.

Sir Alec retired in 1974 when the West Riding was abolished as part of the reorganisation of local government in England.

Education in Society

Sir Alec Clegg
The Arthur Mellows Memorial Lecture



Education in Society




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The Arthur Mellows Memorial Trust was founded by a number of his friends to commemorate in practical form the community service of one who, by his abilities and devotion to public duty, added lustre to a family name long distinguished in the history of Peterborough.

Colonel A. H. Mellows died under tragic circumstances in the Autumn of 1948, when his car was in collision with a railway train at a level crossing. By his death Peterborough lost one of her most able public men, and many private citizens a true friend.

The Memorial Trust is administered by Trustees including representatives of the Civic Authority and the Mellows family. It has as its objects: to award school prizes in subjects in which Col. Mellows was specially interested; to make grants to deserving law students and to necessitous Ex-Servicemen of Col. Mellows' Regiment and their families; and to provide for public lectures on sociological and educational subjects.

The Memorial Lectures have all been given at the Arthur Mellows Village College, Clinton, Near Peterborough, which was founded in 1949 by the Peterborough joint Education Board of which Colonel Mellows was the first Chairman.

The Peterborough joint Education Board was the Local Education Authority for the Soke and City of Peterborough from 1945 to 1965 when it was dissolved on the creation of the new County of Huntingdon and Peterborough. The Education Committee for the new County has continued the relationship with the Arthur Mellows Memorial Trust and has shared with the Trust responsibility for this lecture.

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I have chosen the title of "Changes in the relationship between society and the schools" for a number of reasons, none of them very creditable. The first is that it is so wide a subject that I am bound to be relevant every now and again. The others are that I have talked on this topic in Australia and Scotland and I am to talk on it in Canada so it is much on my mind.

What I propose to do is this. I shall look first of all at what we call general education and then at what I term personal education in order to see what changes are taking place. I shall look at the difficulties which our society is making for our teachers and try and diagnose where education is failing. Finally I shall say a word or two about some of the changes that I think we ought to make in our education service.

General Education

In 1517 one Richard Pace said "I swear by God's body I would rather that my son should hang than study letters. For it becomes the sons of gentlemen to play the horn well, to hunt skilfully and elegantly, and to carry and train a hawk, but the study of letters should be left to the sons of mean people."

Some three centuries later an English Bishop said "It is safest for the government and for the religions of the country to let the lower classes remain in that state of ignorance in which nature has already placed them."

Now if education is merely a response to the economic demands of society there is nothing surprising in these two views. When Richard Pace wrote his piece the people who counted in society were royalty and the landed aristocracy and the people who did not were their retainers. Similarly in the 19th Century the people who counted were the aristocracy, the wealthy, and those who did not were the labouring poor, so of course the Bishop thought as he did.

But now society is undergoing another major change. In the future of this technological age the people who count will increasingly be those who are clever and those who do not count will be those who are slow. And the power which will derive from cleverness may

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be even more corrupt than that which in the past has derived from birth and wealth. Let us look a little more closely at what has happened over the last 50 years, and it is still happening.

There must be hundreds of thousands of people today earning their living in occupations which were unknown at the time when I and others of my generation were being trained for a job. I refer not only to those engaged in the complex task of transplanting hearts and making space capsules or to those who make and service aeroplanes and computers and television sets, or even to those who build simpler devices such as electric irons and fires and refrigerators, but also to those who maintain our great new services such as the Health Service and even the great gambling industry. As industrial change is now far more rapid than it used to be it follows that far more young people in our schools today will earn their living doing jobs not yet invented than was the case when I was at school. Moreover, most of these new jobs will demand far more education than the ones being discarded. For example in the thirties there were 128,000 drivers of horse drawn vehicles and 10,000 shepherds. Neither group is to-day big enough to warrant a census category.

But there is another and more significant change. We used to think that the time would come when instead of working for 48 hours a week we should work for 40 or 35 or 30, but it seems it isn't going to work out that way. Instead of each of our being relieved of a similar proportion of arduous work some of us, because we are only able to tackle simple jobs, may be without work as the only work we are capable of doing will be taken over by machines. Others of us, on the other hand, with the ability to invent and put to use complex machines and devices may be grossly over-worked. Moreover, as the machines become more and more sophisticated they will take over the work of those who are not the least able, and what we do not know is whether the service industries can increase to absorb those who are thus rendered unemployed. In my own County there are now 80,000 miners employed and this number is expected to be reduced to 21,700 within ten years.

We are well into this kind of revolution. Over 12 years ago the manual workers ceased to be the largest social group in the United States and there are in England now more teachers than there are miners and more people employed in the Health Service than in Agriculture. But the two fears I have already mentioned are real ones. The first is that the services will not expand quickly enough to absorb those displaced from industry and the other

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greater and far more dangerous, and far more likely one, is that society may hold in ever increasing disregard those who are the less clever, no matter what other qualities they may or may not possess. This is already happening on the other side of the Atlantic where it is the coloureds who are held in disregard and who are under-achieving mainly because of the circumstances in which they are reared. But it is also happening in England where in the industrial areas many who have been starved of a rich environment in their early years have been given in the schools a weak academic diet on which they cannot hope to thrive.

Personal Education

If we are to have more leisure and if there is to be forced upon us by technical progress such a thing as unemployability, then it is of the utmost importance that our children be fortified by education to meet these new conditions of life.

And it will no longer do in these circumstances to conceive of education as the three r's, followed by studies in the traditional academic or vocational subjects, concentrated or diluted to meet the needs of the strong and the weak. Our aim will surely have to be what it now ought to be, to get the best out of each child. As Carlyle said "The great law of culture is that each should become all that he was created capable of being."

Now this of course means thinking not only of what a child must know but of the kind of person he is to become. We are to be concerned not only with the skills and with information but with the child's attitudes and values, with his self-respect and his respect for others, his imagination and his sensitivity, his acuity of mind, and his capacity for enjoyment in a wide range of activities designed by man for enjoyment, activities such as art, music, literature and all manner of outdoor pursuits and not merely the competitive games to which so much time is devoted to the chagrin and discouragement of the unapt.

But the easy way of teaching is of course to teach by the old formula - "this is what you have to do, this is how you have to do it, do it and I'll mark it." This is easy teaching, no matter how difficult or advanced the subject matter, but is it the education I believed it to be when I myself taught in this way?

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In recent years it has been my privilege to see work in junior schools which is based not on irrelevant subjects but on relevant experiences. Children visit a place of interest and excitement - a station, a lock, a farm or a factory - or they bring to their schools objects which stimulate interest and the work begins from there. The urge to do something about what they have seen and heard is intense and they talk and write and read and paint and model and calculate with a zest and eagerness which I have seldom seen following a formal lesson. The good school becomes a place of immense stimulation and the urge to communicate is irresistible. The children need no longer to be driven and disciplinary problems are reduced to a minimum. Because children work as individuals unfortunate comparisons which can so discourage the less gifted are reduced to a minimum and no child is lost or overlooked. Moreover, each child sees the skills as necessary tools which will enable him to pursue chosen interests rather than as tedious drill which his teacher requires. But the exciting thing about this new way of working is that it does so much for the personal development of the child. Because there are so many media in which the child can work, every child is almost certain to meet with success and confidence in one of them; because each child can work at his own pace there is no child who is frustrated by being held back and none is disheartened by being unable to keep up.

The relationship between teacher and taught has also changed. When 35 children explore 35 different avenues no teacher can possibly claim to know all, and the teacher's job is that of an adviser and consultant to a young investigator or enquirer, who is himself bearing a great deal of the responsibility for his own learning. In these circumstances there is very little of the sterile memorising which used to pass and still passes for education. Most of what the child does is done on his own initiative rather than on the teacher's instruction and because of this it is more readily assimilated by him and seems to add more to his stature.

Because of these developments we can at last see in our classrooms what Locke really meant when he said that "Learning must be had but as subservient only to the greater qualities," or what Ruskin meant when he said that the spirit needs several kinds of food of which knowledge is only one.

And of course the teacher has at last become a real professional. He sees each child as an individual, diagnoses his needs and with great subtlety ensures that they are met, and that no area of activity is neglected. It is a very different job from that of doling

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out a prescribed quantum of information to be taken by the child regardless of the state of his digestive powers.

It is perhaps in the field of physical education that the changes which have taken place demonstrate most forcibly the new principles which are at work. When I was young 30 children all faced the same task - say a vault or jump. The first half-dozen or so achieved immediate success because they were gifted and the teacher took the credit that was due to heredity and the Almighty. The middle group did their best and made progress which could rightly be credited to the teacher but in which he took no great pride. The last half-dozen showed an ineptitude for which the teacher disclaimed all responsibility and their failure was attributed to them, to heredity or to the Almighty who had endowed them so poorly. The teacher took great pleasure from his gifted pupils, particularly if they succeeded in a field in which he had failed, but the dull and clumsy remained dull and clumsy and their lack of success in this as in other subjects often led to loathing. In a good junior school class today in which children work as individuals each exploring the limits of his own abilities, the teacher can offer that praise and encouragement to the least apt who stand so much in need of it, with the result that they too progress.

And so in our infant and in the best of our junior schools I see the kind of work which I believe is immeasurably superior to what has gone before in the way it strengthens rather than fills the young mind and is likely more than anything I know to fit the young for the changes which our society is likely to undergo.

Society versus the School

But society is itself increasing the burdens which it is laying on the schools. All we can offer to the young as a goal is material prosperity and they, and particularly the ablest amongst them, despise our values. We over value the able whom we think will make us even more prosperous and we discard the least able and they, resentful and bitter at our lack of concern for them, force themselves on our attention in ways which they believe will offend us most. We blame the young and generally have little understanding of their reactions. We lament our permissive society and fail to ask who it is that is doing the permitting and what went wrong with the way they, the permitters, were reared. We blame the young for following our own indulgence in alcohol, gambling, sex and tobacco. UNESCO tells us that in the world

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as a whole we spend $7,800 per soldier per year yet we condemn the young for their violence. Crime rates are soaring in the western world; in England crimes of violence amongst young people of 18 to 21 have increased by nearly 1,000 % in the last 18 years. Then of course there are the squalid and unhappy recesses of our society. Illegitimate births amongst 15 year old girls recently increased by nearly 400% over a ten year span; children abandoned increased by 85% over the same period; illegitimate children for whom the mother could not provide by 200%. And we are adding to our problems by keeping alive children who only a few years ago would have died. As the Crowther Committee pointed out, "about one in four of the women marrying now at the ages of 16 to 18 will have been divorced by the 20th anniversary of their wedding and in 1965 the divorce rate for girls married before they were 20 was twice as high as that for girls married between the ages of 20 and 24."

There are other aberrations of our adult society which bear hardly on the child; I refer to the work-shy parent, the parent who finds it more profitable not to work. Politicians tell us that such parents are only a fringe problem in our society, one so tiny that it is hardly worth our concern. I don't dispute this and I have no doubt that society itself has often contributed to the moral sickness which makes men prepared to live on their fellows. But what I do deplore is the effect on children which no researchers as far as I am aware have yet investigated.

I recently had a look at nearly 980 families with 5 or more children who were in receipt of Social Security Benefits. In the opinion of those who conducted the investigation and who knew the families 9.3% of the fathers found it more profitable not to work and did not do so. Now if this is true the schools are bound to consider the handicap which this presents to over 500 children, who themselves are likely to become parents in due course.

I think that my own generation is suffering from a kind of hangover of the naive belief that if only poverty could be cured all other problems would be solved. It is perhaps time that we studied the handicaps which are forced on children and which are by no means necessarily affected by poverty. I refer to children under stress, children who are unwanted, children who lack support, children whose parents are separated, divorced, over-anxious, over-possessive or over-ambitious. We have yet to recognise that the child who is really handicapped is not the child in irons or the child strapped to the hospital bed month after month, but the

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child who is miserable from whatever cause. He is the child who will not learn and affluence is no sure safeguard against misery. What we do not know is whether the causes of child misery are on the increase but such evidence as I have found indicates that they are.

The Failings of the Education Service

When I think of the handicaps that society imposes on children I should be happier if I thought that the education service were able to remove them. It is not; indeed I think it often aggravates or exaggerates them.

Let us consider for a moment the differences between children when they begin school. Some are already able to read, others of equal potential do not know the meaning of the words blue or red or green and are unable to count up to 5. Some have parents who have been right through the education system and will watch their child's every step as he goes through it, others are fearful of going near the school on their child's behalf. Some children speak examination English almost from birth, others in their homes speak almost in monosyllabic grunts. Some children are born into circumstances which stimulate and enrich all their mental processes, others into circumstances which inevitably stifle their mental and physical development. Some are utterly happy as they enter school, others utterly wretched.

Yet all these children enter school together and are expected to line up before the same examinations at the same age. What we teach is based on what can be memorised, reproduced and measured, though whether we measure anything more than the ability to recall what has been memorised is in many subjects doubtful. But it affects all children and often those not examined are given, in diluted form, the syllabus which has been devised by some outside examiner for children whom he has never seen and which is purveyed to bright children often regardless of their interests or needs. Credit and acclaim goes to the bright child whose brain power rather than his endeavour is rewarded and to the teacher who has performed the relatively simple task of making a gifted child realise his gifts. The teacher who awakens in a dull mind a desire to learn and in doing this demonstrates talent of a very high order, is seldom recognised. It is a significant comment on the pedagogic quality, purpose and value of the external examination that between £175,000 and £200,000 is earned annually by

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the examining boards from the sale of back numbers of questions. And what is the reliability of these examinations? Put 28 children in for two examinations in 'O' level English and it is possible for 3 to pass in the exam for which they have prepared and for 25 to pass in the exam for which they have not, and for the pupil who was top in one exam to be bottom in the other. As one boy said to me on another occasion - I got a bottom grade in the summer and a top grade in November and I still don't know which was the fluke. But the real danger of our external examinations is that they withdraw from teachers the professional duty of thinking why they are doing what they are doing with particular children and the grave social danger is that every time we examine at 11+ or 'O' level or 'A' level we devote all our attention to those who fall above the line and virtually discard those who fall below it.

Though knowledge we are told is doubling every ten years, our examinations are still constructed as if there is a body of knowledge which all should possess. The great value of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi was that a knowledge of it enabled me to gain a school certificate in history in 1926 and my son to gain an 'O' level some 40 years later.

But the greatest fear I have of our whole elitist education system with its emphasis on the quick and its neglect of the slow is that it is creating a recipe for social disorder. To isolate slow learners, many of whom have had a bad start in life, to give them the rawest deal in the school and then to make sure that they are the last to get a job and that a poor one, is a way leading to trouble. Yet the public conscience, half aware that our concern and care diminishes as the streams go lower, has lessened the severity of the steps we take when trouble occurs. We cane less and expel less just at a time when what we do in school is designed to create worse behaviour. If we withhold our concern from any group, as we do from the 'D' stream, then should we not be prepared ruthlessly to suppress the disorder bred of resentment which must follow?

I am not optimistic. I think that the technological revolution through which we are passing and which is bringing us untold wealth compared with anything our forbears enjoyed is also confronting us with immense dangers. I do not refer merely to the likelihood of our destroying ourselves, which is the most obvious of these dangers; I do not refer even to the more blatant ills of our society such as the vast increase in crime in the U.S.A. which was reported on in the Times of August 13th last year, in a statement which said that a murder is committed every 39 minutes in that

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country, rape every 17 minutes, down to burglary every 12 seconds. There are other problems which we have to face. As I have already said we are keeping alive more handicapped children and are creating a society in which many may become unemployable. We have become very materialistic and we tend to put profits and property before people and this is one of the reasons why we are alienating the younger generation.

Now what can we do ?

I believe that one of our hopes is that education might be used to change the course of society, though this of course is an extremely ambitious and hopeful thing to say. But if it is to happen many of our values and ideas will have to change. We shall have to put far less emphasis on the idea of education as a body of knowledge which each child has to attain and as the sum of knowledge is doubling every ten years the idea that the bits that we now use to stimulate the young will be valuable for this purpose ten years hence is something of a nonsense anyway.

We shall most certainly have to change our attitude to slow learners unless we are going positively and deliberately to create in our midst a bitter and resentful group who are dangerous because they are discarded.

We shall have to acknowledge that teaching the gifted is the relatively easy job and teachers will have to resist the temptation to show off the gifted as a credit to themselves and despair of the weak by discarding them as hopeless.

We shall have to watch the increasing tendency to sacrifice the young and the slow in order to meet the needs of those who are older and quicker. How many school children for instance could be maintained for a year at the cost of one student taking a B.Ed. degree: 10 at least I suspect. We will have to pursue the policy of positive discrimination in favour of the under-privileged and the handicapped to a much greater extent than our timid beginnings have so far led us to do.

It is an incredible folly that we rear so many children in conditions in which they can do no other than fail and then dismiss them as born failures. Does anyone seriously believe that if 500 youngsters born into an affluent, stimulating and enriched environment were changed at birth with 500 youngsters born in pitiable squalor or with 500 who were denied affection the chances in life

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of the groups would not be altered. I have in mind one class of 38 children - children from a mining estate whose environment in the classroom is so rich and whose learning is so avid that at the age of 10 their vocabulary is on an average four years ahead of the normal. I know also another school of 500 children, 87% of them the sons and daughters of coal miners, whose work is so eager that there is no problem of discipline in the school, no child is ever caned, none is ever referred to child guidance and none so far has failed to read. So it can be done. But let us not forget on the other hand, as Plowden showed us, that children in the slums are as readers 17 months behind the national average.

And we shall have to let our learning follow the natural growth of children and not go against it. We have a curious habit of putting the educational cart before the horse and only the quick can survive this oddity. It has been our practice in the past to say there are the processes and rules of mathematics which you must learn before you can apply them, and if you will only learn your grammar and syntax you can write well, or if you will learn the techniques of perspective and of reproducing light and shade and master the intricacies of colour blending you will be able to paint. This is what I mean by putting the cart before the horse. Suppose we taught children to speak in this way and suppose we said no speech in the first year, words of not more than two syllables for the two year old, three syllables for the three year old, simple sentences for the four year old and finally at the age of five the first complex sentences. Or to take another example, suppose we taught football by kicking with the right foot in the first term, the left foot in the second term, the shoulder charge in the third term and then saying, after three years, you can have a game, what would be the effect not only on the child but all football? But we have no compunction about working in this way when we teach mathematics and English. The answer to all this has been found in our good primary schools. If the child is impelled into experiences which excite his interest he will "con amore" undertake the reading, writing, painting, calculating and modelling to which they lead. But interest and relevance must come first, particularly with the slow; the quick can survive very bad teaching.

If teaching is really to become a profession the main purpose of which is to diagnose the needs of each child and meet them, we shall have to abandon the external examination which relieves the teacher of thought about why he is doing what he is doing for an individual child and turns him into a mere purveyor of other people's syllabuses. It really is not honest for me to say I'm a

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cordon bleu professional cook when all I do is take a pre-packaged meal out of the freezer and put it in a saucepan of hot water for 20 minutes and then serve it up. But that is to a great extent what the teacher does who works to an external syllabus.

But most important of all, we shall have to cease to see the process of education as a series of separate stages - primary, secondary, further and adult, with a few remedial stages such as the youth service slipped in to retrieve failure at the earlier stages. It is I think a sensible principle to have small schools for small children, middle schools for middle sized children. But the big schools for older children and adults must be genuine community centres which the young must attend and the older members of the community may attend. They must be run on a three session day, seven days a week for 50 weeks in the year, and the man in charge of each must dispose of a staff which will meet the needs both of the school and the adult centre. The purpose of his school we know, but his aim with adults will be to establish activities which meet a full range of local interest and activities which will eventually run themselves.

But the major change will have to be one of attitude, and I do not know how this can be brought about. But it does happen in our society, we changed our views on slavery, on the need to educate the poor, on colonialism, and so on, and the need of our day is to change our attitude to our slower learners. We must I think remember, as I have said before, that the easy job is to teach the quick and the gifted especially if someone else works out the syllabus for us. We can hardly fail with the quick because they are quick. But the real challenge which the teacher has to face is the slow learning, the unapt, the clumsy child. As the machines take over this group will go on growing and if we cannot meet their needs they will become a bitter and resentful, dangerous minority and our society will be pulled asunder with results, the gravity of which we cannot foresee.

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[inside front cover]


1951 - Sir Ernest Barker, F.B.A., D.LITT. "The development of Education in England during the last fifty years."

1952 - Sir John Wolfenden, C.B.E., M.A. "Three duties of a Teacher."

1953 - The Right Honourable The Lord Percy of Newcastle, D.C.L., LL.D. "Education after School."

1954 - Dr. Tyrone Guthrie "The Theatre and the Community."

1955 - Professor W. A. C. Stewart, M.A. PH.D. "Universities in England and the Study of Education."

1957 - Sir George Paget Thomson, F.R.S. "The Education of Scientists and Technologists today and tomorrow."

1958 - Professor D. W. Brogan, M.A., LL.D. "American Civilisation at the Crossroads."

1959 - Graham Hutton, O.B.E. "Education, Leadership and Followership."

1960 - The Right Honourable The Lord Twining, G.C.M.G., M.B.E. "The Wind of Change in East Africa."

*1962 - Dr. James Hemming "Adolescents and Society."

1963 - Dr. David Thomson, M.A. "The France of Charles de Gaulle."

1964 - Dr. F. Lincoln Ralphs, M.Sc., LL.B. "Half Way to Orwell."

*1965 - Norman Fisher, M.A. "Henry Morris - Pioneer of Education in the Countryside."


[inside back cover]


1966 - Harold Magnay, M.A. "School to Work in Western Europe."

1967 - Paul Symes, M.A. "Law Reform."

*1968 - Sir William Alexander L.H.D., PH.D., M.A., M.ED., B.SC., F.C.P. "Education in relation to the National Economy."

*1969 - Professor W. H. G. Armytage, M.A. "Looking North - Influence and Inference from Sweden in English Education"

Copies of this lecture and of the three marked * may be obtained, price 3/- each, from:-

The Arthur Mellows Memorial Trust,
    c/o Careers Office,
        49 Priestgate,

Sir Alec Clegg's Arthur Mellows Memorial Lecture 1970 was prepared for the web by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 27 January 2016.