After dinner speech 1972

This after dinner speech was given by Sir Alec Clegg, Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire, on 3 August 1972, at the end of a vacation course for teachers at Bingley College of Education.

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


Making the whole world wonder

Sir Alec Clegg
Bingley College of Education
3 August 1972




First of all may I say that I hope you have enjoyed this course. If this has been the case, Miss Milne will find it a reward for the anguish I know she suffered in planning it. I would like also to express my most sincere thanks to her and to all her colleagues and helpers for the work that they have put into it and also to Mr Butcher and the college for the excellent contribution that have made to its success.

Miss Milne has asked me to give this closing lecture and no doubt she did it to some extent misguidedly and I think out of a sense of duty ('we shall have to fit the old man in somewhere'), and I agreed partly out of a sense of duty and partly because, as my colleagues will know, I daren't do otherwise. So I had to think how an ageing education officer on the eve of retirement could justify speaking to a group of young people likely to be in the thick of educational advance for many years to come and also how to deliver what will probably be the last lecture on a series of vacation courses which began some sixty years ago and which is probably the longest series in the country.

My first justification is that I began my professional life as a teacher. I am the son, son-in-law, grandson, husband, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, father and father-in-law of teachers. Much more significant is the fact that any time over a period of 27 years it has been a possibility for me to see teaching genius at work in the schools of the Riding, and this has been my constant refreshment in inspiration and excitement.

Now I have no expertise in your field and I do not propose to pretend that I have. What I propose to do is talk about four points which have been on my mind recently, and I apologise in advance to my colleagues who have heard some of this before.

The four points are these:

  • first I would like to try and establish what are the qualities which the greatest teachers that I have known have in common;
  • then I would like to say a word or two about odd education practices in the past in order to promote the question, 'What do we do that those who come after us will think odd or absurd?';
  • in the third place I would like to consider how the wisdom of some of our distinguished forbears fortifies us in what we are doing;
  • finally I would like to reflect on the obvious division that exists between the education of the mind and what I do not hesitate to call the education of the spirit.
The qualities which distinguished heads have in common

First of all then, what are the qualities that really fine head teachers have in common? I listed ten of the best heads that I have known - two grammar, two modern, three junior and three infant; four of them women - and I immediately found that I had at once to eliminate from the list of qualities some which traditional ideas of a head would consider essential. For example, only one could, I think, lay claim to scholarship in the accepted sense of that term. Then, though all were efficient, none, I am sure, would have advanced administrative ability as evidence of head teacherly competence. As to their qualifications, they were certainly not above average: indeed one of the grammar school heads did not possess a degree.

All the ten on my list had a force of personality but none exercised the dominance and aloofness which again tradition tends to claim as an headmasterly quality.

From what they have said to me and from the way they directed their schools, they hold the following beliefs. I apologise if this list seems trite but the items in it are in my view extremely important:

  • that there is good in every child, however damaged, repellent or ill-favoured he might be;
  • that success on which a teacher can build must somehow be found for every child;
  • that all children matter;
  • that happy relationships between head, teachers, and pupils are all-important;
  • that the life of the child can be enriched by the development of his creative powers;
  • that encouragement is far more important than punishment;
  • that teachers just as much as pupils need support and thrive on recognition.
I think I should add that most of the heads on my list had an excellent sense of humour, indeed a sense of fun, and I personally believe this to be an attribute of considerable significance in the post that they held.

But perhaps the most important quality in all these heads was that each had thought out why he was doing what he was doing and did not bend to fashion or cliché.

And of course they did not stand still. They were immersed in - and constantly excited by - what they were doing. They were innovators. They modified their views continuously as they learned from their experiences in their own schools and from the ideas that they picked up outside and wished to try out. Their professional life was a creative quest.

There was, it seemed to me, an interesting distinction between them and the good, kindly, effective, formal teachers that I knew earlier in my life. The latter were often sentimental in their approach and patronising in their attitudes. The ten on my list had neither of these faults. The qualities that I have listed as being prominent in good heads are of course equally important in the best class teachers that I have known. I should say, however, that one or two of these teachers have, I believe, been teachers of genius, years ahead of their time, whose work may be only fully understood in the future.

And before I leave this topic may I say that brilliant teachers seem to turn up everywhere and their brilliance seems to be independent of age, training, experience of qualification, but not of recognition and encouragement. And another source of inspiration is the fact that as I go about the country I meet probationer teachers from poor colleges teaching with brilliance and this seems always to be a miracle that I do not fully understand.

The oddities of the past

And now as a warning to us all, let me turn to an entirely different matter and list some of the peculiar things that happened in the past. Most of them happened to my grandfather who was a school master from 1869 until after the first World War. At the time when he was at school, youngsters in their early teens had to learn by heart curious mathematical rules of this kind:

Inverse proportion is when more requires less and less requires more. More requires less is when the third term is greater than the first and requires the fourth term to be less than the second. And less requires more when the third term is less than the first and requires the fourth term to be greater than the second.
I can grasp this if I really give my attention to it, but this one, entitled Fellowship with Time, is beyond me:
As the sum of the product of each man's money and time is to the whole gain or loss, so is each man's product to his share of the gain or loss.
When these rules were put into practice, the questions were sometimes laced with sentiment and sometimes with religion. For example:
A man met a maid with a flock of geese and said 'Where are you going sweetheart with those fifty geese?' She replied 'I have not fifty, but if I had half as many more and a third and a quarter as many more I should have fifty'. How many had she?
And then this one:
There were twelve patriarchs, twelve apostles and twelve evangelists. Add the patriarchs and the evangelists together and subtract the apostles. What is the remainder?
And believe it or not there was this, which I have every reason to believe was not thought to be funny:
Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Add the concubines to the wives and state the result.
I believe it is the fashion to label this kind of thing nowadays the 'integration of subjects'.

Then as I look into my grandfather's exercise books I find page after page devoted to that extraordinary activity 'parsing'. Grandfather's parsing always seemed to try and drive home a moral lesson. When he was ten he had to parse 'Truth lies at the bottom of the well', and when he was twelve he parsed 'I doubt if he who lolls his head where idleness and plenty meet, enjoys his pillow or his bread as those who earn the meals they eat', and this was nine inches of parsing when set out vertically.

By the time he was fifteen he was parsing 'He does not scorn it who imprisoned long in some unwholesome dungeon and a prey to sallow sickness escapes at last to liberty and light, which the vapours dank and clammy of his dark abode have bred. His cheeks recover soon their healthful hue, his eye illumes its extinguished ires, he walks, he leaps, he runs, is winged with joy and riots in the sweets of every breeze.' Now that I reckon is a foot and a half of parsing, so that we could say that over a five year span, between ten and fifteen, my grandfather did about 200 yards of parsing, and the aim of it was to make him write better. But he didn't write any better than my son at the same age and my son never parsed anything.

What he did have to do was learn a lot of general knowledge and the kind of thing he had to learn was set out in a book by Mrs Magnall who taught at Crofton near Wakefield, and whose book was entitled Historical and Miscellaneous Questions - hundreds of them, including for instance 'Who was Puffendorf?' 'How many gentlemen form the Grand Jury of a Country?' 'What was a Lustrum?' 'What became of Eli?', and 'What are gall nuts?'

And my grandfather himself had to learn something which I suspect no Professor of English knows today: he had to know what an illative co-ordination was, and I should think that every twelve year old child in Bolton knew this in the second half of the last century. They knew that an illative co-ordination is that in which the second of two principal sentences is placed in logical conclusion or inference with the first and that the conjunctions which join them are therefore, wherefore and consequently. And if they did not know that, they would not earn the money in the days of payment by results on which their school depended.

This phenomenal crudity of paying the school its dues only when the children passed the Inspector's test had the result that subjects not inspected and children unlikely to succeed were both neglected and, of course, it has made this country a slave to examination.

But perhaps the most astonishing thing that my grandfather had to learn in those days was to define a copulative conjunction. I shudder to think what the answers would be if that were set to an O level class today. But the answer is of course the word 'and'.

Now I can't believe that my father's and grandfather's generation had a monopoly of educational oddities, absurdities and stupidities. What will our grandchildren in their day think of what we do? Built into their understanding of the way children learn will be all that Dr Davie told us concerning the effect of social handicap on educational progress and with this in mind our grandchildren will surely be amazed that for the last fifty years we have held the Intelligence Quotient as sacred. They might think it odd that we so often conceive of teaching as imparting large slabs of knowledge to be memorised, rather than as providing material for the mind to work on. They will be astonished that we have not yet realised the full power of expectation. They will criticise us for concentrating on what can be marked and undervaluing what cannot.

They may understand the importance we attach to reading, writing and arithmetic and the learning of another language - things which we can mark and assess progress in them by our marks. They will be astonished, I think, that we don't yet understand how to develop discrimination and judgement and the enjoyment of things designed by civilised man to be enjoyed - painting, music, art and so on - all of which are just as much part of our education as history and geography, but we tend to undervalue them because we cannot mark them or have them externally examined.

They will be amazed that we fall so readily for such clichés as the 'open plan' school, the 'integrated day', 'family grouping', 'team teaching', 'the integration of subjects'; all of which seem to me to lead to superficial rather than profound thought about why the teacher is doing what he is doing. Think for a moment of what happens.

A teacher in a primary school decides to ignore what we used to call the lesson bell as she doesn't want to disturb her class when they are in full learning spate, and because she is a thoughtful and gifted teacher she gets excellent results. Along come the pundits and say if only we stop all the bells in all schools and integrate the day, as they put it, the results in all schools will be improved.

A group of teachers in sympathy with each other find that they can join forces and in combination obtain better results than they can obtain singly. Along come the pundits and say bring down the partition walls so that all, willy nilly, must combine and the resultant open plan teaching, as they call it, will produce excellence.

A gifted teacher finds out that she can use a seven year old to help a five year old and in her wisdom and understanding she exploits this. Along come the pundits and say, let us all have family grouping and wonders will be worked.

But suppose the young teacher needs the support which the lesson bell affords; suppose two teachers in a team can't stand each other; or suppose an inexperienced teacher finds it difficult to accommodate her teaching to five year olds and seven year olds at the same time.

These then are some of my fears about what we do. You will no doubt have others, but my plea to you all is that you should think out why you are doing what you are doing in your teaching, and if this happens I shall have few fears of the consequences because you will teach with conviction.

The wisdom of the past

Let me now turn to the third point which I said I would raise, namely the support which thinkers of the past have given to some of the views that we hold. Let me take reading first. There is about to be an inquest on our teaching of reading and the danger that I foresee is that we shall go the same way as the Americans have gone. They make a vast thing of reading: tests and courses and programmes, examinations and advanced studies and the like. What I propose to do now is to read to you a few quotations from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which the great educational philosopher John Locke wrote 300 years ago.

When he can talk, tis time he should begin to learn to read, but as to this give me leave here to inculcate again what is very apt to be forgotten, namely that great care is to be taken that it be never made as a business to him nor he look on it as a task.

Their being forced and tied down to their books in an age at enmity with all such restraint has I doubt not been reason why a great many have hated books and learning all their lives after. It is like a surfeit which leaves an aversion behind not to be removed.

Thus much for learning to read, which let him never be driven to nor chid for; cheat him into it if you can, but make it not a business for him. Tis better it be a year later before he can read than that he should this way get an aversion to learning.

Lay no task on him about ABC. Use your skill to make his will supple and pliant to reason. Teach him to love credit and commendation, to abhor being though ill or meanly of, especially by you and his mother, and then the rest will come all easily.

When by these easy ways he begins to read, some easy pleasant book suited to his capacity should be put into his hands wherein the entertainment that he finds might draw him on and reward his pains in reading.

Then there is this from an HMI's report written in 1847:

... the singular slowness with which the children of our national schools learn to read, a fact to which all our reports have borne testimony, is in some degree to be attributed to the unwise concentration of the leaders of the school on that single subject.
From the very first report of the West Riding Education Committee, issued on 12 July 1905:
We have forced on reading at an age in the child's development when it was bound to be a mechanical and deadening process.
Let me now turn to a second point, the one which Lady Plowden makes so forcibly in her report on learning by discovery. This is what one of our greatest political thinkers, Edmund Burke, said on this topic some 200 years ago:
I am convinced that the method of teaching which approaches most nearly to the methods of investigation is comparably the best since not content with serving up a few barred and lifeless truths it leads to the stock on which they grow. It tends to set the learner himself on the track of invention and to direct him into those paths in which the author has made his own.
We think that learning by discovery is something that we have devised, but let me read to you some of the points that a Dr. Henry Armstrong made in 1898. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Professor of Chemistry in the Central Technical College of the City and Guilds of London Institute, and wrote an article entitled The Art of Making Children Discover Things for Themselves, and in it he quotes the great German writer Lessing, who said that 'if the Almighty were in the one hand to offer me truth and in the other the search after truth I would humbly but firmly choose the search after truth.'

He then goes on to develop this theme of learning by discovery and in his article he says:

We must give up a large proportion of the desk work done in schools and instead of enforcing silence encourage our scholars to enter into rational conversation about the work they are doing. Why is it that our children so seldom talk about their school work? Is it not because so little encouragement is given to rational conversation and reading in schools?' Then he says: 'In the afternoon I would only allow work to be done in the workshop or workroom - a room in which scholars can move about freely and do all kinds of practical work. Gradually I would have nearly all classrooms converted into workshops or workrooms. Teachers would constantly move about noticing what is being done, criticising and giving brief directions to one group of pupils or another. When such a system is adopted, an effective punishment will be a few days banishment from the workroom to the bread and water solitary confinement atmosphere of the old fashioned classroom.
And when I think of our recent discovery of team teaching I am just a little astonished by this sentence:
The teacher, or teachers, where several combine to take one composite class, could find time to pass around the class and criticise the doings of each pupil.
And this:
When our pupils engage together in the work of discovery and are set to find out things themselves they will naturally be led to discuss their work together, to exchange views, to ask each other's advice and they will be so interested in their work that they will not fail to talk about it. Nothing could be less rational, less truly preparatory for the work of life than the system of enforced silence that we enjoin. But it is a necessary outcome of didactic class teaching, extravagant indulgence in the use of books and disregard of all tools and weapons other than the pen.
He goes on to say:
To make such teaching effective the account of the work done should be most carefully written out by the worker as the work proceeds - the dictation of notes by the teacher being regarded as a criminal offence. Whenever possible have illustrative drawings introduced into the record. Teach spelling by calling attention to mistakes and requiring these to be corrected by reference to the dictionary - a book which should be in constant use.

As to apparatus, it should be gradually provided to meet requirements as they arise and every effort should be made to utilise ordinary articles - medicine and pickle bottles, jam pots, saucepans and to construct apparatus in the workroom. For this latter purpose a carpenter's bench and tools, vice and files, a small lathe, an anvil and even a small forge, should whenever possible form part of the equipment. Infinite injury is done at the present day; invaluable opportunities of imparting training are lost by providing everything ready-made.

Now I suppose the present danger that worries me most, the one I believe to constitute the most significant problem that we have to tackle, is the attitude that our country has to the slower learning child. If this attitude does not change we shall within a year or two face social disruption on a large scale in some of our inner city schools. This what Edward Thring, the great Headmaster of Uppingham, said about it some eighty years ago:
All the energy of the school is expended on the strong and the active who will distinguish themselves in the knowledge scramble. The weak are pushed into a corner and neglected, their natural tendency to shrink from labour is educated into despair by their being constantly reminded, directly or indirectly, that their labour is no good.

The appeal to success, prizes and prize winning bids fair to be the watchword of the day. But what does this do for the majority - for the non-competing crowd who nevertheless do not politely die off and make room. They cannot through modern squeamishness be killed off and buried - there they are and there they insist on remaining.

And he completes the picture with the statement about examinations:
Let it be stated at once, clearly, emphatically and without reservation, that examinations are an excellent rough method of deciding whether ignorance is before you. As a pass standard to judge dishonest neglect or culpable idleness they are efficient, but the moment they are applied as arbiters of merit over a large area, the case is very different, especially if they are taken up as a national system.
And I could continue almost indefinitely with thoughts of great men of the past that support many of our current practices and advances.

The education of the mind and spirit

Let me conclude by saying why I think the work of our infant and junior schools is more important than the work of our secondary schools and our institutions of higher education at this stage in our development.

From whatever point of view one contemplates the educational scene one sees at once a marked division between the development of the mind and of the spirit.

Now as soon as one mentions the spirit, folk tend to withdraw and to be shy because they do not really know what it is. I propose to say what I mean by it and then try and illustrate by examples its significance in the educational process.

As I see it, my mind has to do with my ability to see cause and effect, to follow a logical argument, to reason, to calculate, to memorise facts, to infer and deduce; and it is these attributes of man more than others which have enabled him to make the Concorde and the nuclear bomb.

But my spirit is different; it has to do with my fears and joys, my enthusiasms and apathies and my loves and hates. It is this side of my nature which more than my mind I think decides when I shall release the bomb and whom I shall kill with it. It accounts for the emotional mess in Northern Ireland as well as the compassion of Oxfam, and for the fear that dockers have, not merely of losing their jobs but of being of no account in our society, and it accounts for the driving force of men like Gandhi, Schweitzer, and a whole army of martyrs and saints.

In the school and the classroom the difference between mind and spirit shows itself in simpler ways which are within our grasp. There is, for instance, the difference between the mechanical process of reading and the enjoyment of what is read; between the mechanics of musical notation and sensitive playing and singing; between writing on a prescribed topic from notes on the blackboard and telling someone in your own personal written words of something that has excited you; between lessons on perspective and giving the child the urge to draw or model or paint what he sees in his way; between the child whose interest is aroused by how his grandfather and grandmother lived when they were young or by the origins of the local railway or canal or factory, and the child who is made to do the Tudors or do the Stuarts or start with the Ancient Britons in the hope one day of arriving at Elizabeth II; the difference between the teacher who tries to who obtains a purely superficial result by beating the child into submission; between the teacher whose subject matter is adjusted to his own ability and the child's needs and the teacher who merely follows the syllabus; between the teacher who ranks and grades children solely on their achievements and the one who can make allowances for handicaps and judges effort; between the head of a school who sees the timetable and the framing and observation of school rules as his main task and the one who, by the use of recognition, expectation and encouragement, draws the best out of colleagues and pupils.

These differences are of course very largely the differences between the Old and New Testaments of our religion. The Old Testament relies on the law, on an eye for an eye, on the use of the rod. It rests in the belief that if a child is trained up in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from that way. The New Testament message is less concerned with the mind and the law. It proclaims that love is the fulfilling of the law, that knowledge puffeth up, that charity edifieth, and that whosoever should offend one of these little ones, etc.

Now the interesting distinction between the Old and the New Testament attitudes in education is that one can more often than not measure the things of the mind, the things governed by law and regulations - spelling, punctuation, calculations, the facts of history and geography, science, technical proficiency, the accuracy of the perspective, the effectiveness of the timetable, even the degree of submission achieved by the cane. But you cannot measure the love of poetry, the sensitivity to music or art, the zest or initiative with which the peculiarities of nature are investigated, the extent to which encouragement and expectation and just treatment breed trust and compassion and concern in a child.

Now of course one cannot divide the curriculum into the things of the mind and the things of the spirit. Indeed if a child is good at arithmetic but loathes it, the failure in my terms is one for the spirit. But it is a fact that in our education systems we tend to attach more importance to the things of the mind that can be measured, to the subjects which traffic in these things, to the teachers who can teach them and to the children who are good at them, than we do to other activities which deal mainly with what I have called the spirit, and whose manifestations defy measurement.

It is because you people are less likely than any others in the teaching profession to make these harmful distinctions and because you above all others recognise that a child matters for what he is at least as much as for principles and practices and beliefs, all of which I suspect will be tested and questioned by the examiners, the measurers and the structures whose practices are coming up over the land like the plagues of Egypt.

Let me close with a quotation I found early this year in Rome.

When Michelangelo was going to Rome to see the Pope prior to his being employed to build the great dome of St Peter's and paint the Sistine Chapel, he took a reference with him which said:

The bearer of these presents is Michelangelo the sculptor. His nature is such that he requires to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement. But if love be shown him and he be treated really well, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder.

Sir Alec Clegg's after dinner speech was prepared for the web by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 11 May 2013.