Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Most Democratic State School... Alexander Bloom's St Georges-in-the-East

As we approach the celebration of the centenary of the 1918 Education Act, and the visions of the school behind it, as portrayed and created by the New Ideals in Education Community, I thought I would post a series of blogs that would explore different aspects of the Act and the concept of the school fit for the returning soldiers and their families, the school fit for a developing democracy, a democracy that had just extended its franchise to women with property or who attended university.

Alexander Bloom.
I am going to start, rather in the future, a school created after the end of WW2 in bomb destroyed and impoverished East End London, Stepney. Alexander Bloom, the headteacher, expresses the values found throughout the history of New Ideals, though we have yet to find evidence that he attended  their conferences or was part of that community. Though their publications were promoted to teachers, and sent free to them on request, or for a small sum. Published originally by the Womens Press.

Bloom did become an active member of the international community that sprung from New Ideals, through the organisational skills of Beatrice Ensor, one of the first women to become a school inspector in England, part of the New Ideals in Education community from the beginning, who helped found New Education (International) Fellowship that held its first international conference in Calais 1921, and whose journal, New Era, was co-edited by A.S.Neill just before he founded Summerhill School.

There is little evidence for the background to Bloom's creation of the most democratic state school in Britain, when he took over headship of the East End School in the blitzed, impoverished Stepney, though he wrote numerous articles on how the school worked. 

People came from all over the world to visit St Georges-in-the-East, there was a film made by Rank about the school, and national and London newspapers ran reports about its activities and Blooms funeral. The school was run co-operatively for ten years, 1945-55, ending with Bloom's heart attack at his school desk.

Bloom created a school based on a written ethos of freedom from fear, co-operation and democratic participation. There was a structure of class meetings, class rep meetings, school council meetings, staff team meetings and staff/student management meetings. 

One regular meeting described in E.R.Braithwaite's autobiographical novel about his first year of working at the school, 'To Sir, With Love', has the whole school in a hall, with a panel of teachers on the stage answering anonymous questions taken from a hat by students. The book, and subsequent film, with Lulu and Sidney Poitier, seem to portray a traditionalist teacher, who exerts authority over the students, but is fair, and even takes them on a bus trip to the Museum. But the book portrays the school as a failing progressive, that the headteacher is letting his children down through his progressive attitudes, this is a perspective from an aero engineer and spitfire pilot, who could not get employment except finally as a teacher, due to racism. 

Comparing the book/film with the articles about the school would be a great way of exploring the issues of teacher as traditionalist hero or the community, through the vision of the headteacher as the hero. I have, with resources based on Prof Fielding's research, run workshops with secondary school children comparing their student voice with that of St George's-in-the-East and then making suggestions for change in their schools.

The irony of the title of the book and film is that the headteacher of the school, Alexander Bloom refused to be called 'sir' by his students

The teacher, Thackeray,  in the film, takes his children to the Museum by bus, this appears as if it is an innovation in the school, and helps him get the children on his side, whereas the school had a policy of encouraging children to leave the school to learn and research, sometimes even without a teacher. One project reported in the Times Educational Supplement, 1951, was of Form 4 Alpha, creating self-selected groups, choosing sites along the 15 bus route, phoning and writing to them, and then visiting them to research and create a display, to share and teach others, with some 37 sites celebrated. Much of the work done without a teacher. 

This project and the use of the 15 bus will be central to a centenary celebration of the 1918 H.A.L.Fisher Continuation Education Act, for which it epitomises the values of the vision of schooling that was behind the many people who supported and implemented the Act.

A HMI school inspection report stated: 
‘The pioneering and missionary work which has been carried out over the past two and a half years, always in a spirit of confident adventure, has attained not only the goal which the school set itself from the beginning, but also something every School can be.’  (Ministry of Education 1948) Report by H.M. Inspectors on St, George-in-the East County Secondary School, Stepney, London. Inspected 25th-27th February, 1948.
And when on to say that this was 'the vision of the secondary modern school'. These statements and valuation of a community of learning reflected similar writings and case studies shared by school inspectors active in New Ideals in Education from 1914, including the ex-Chief Inspector of Schools, Edmond Holmes.
To find out more click on the links below to read Prof Michael Fieldings research. I will end here with one quote he uses to show the importance and respect held for Bloom and his school:
"...to work of such innovative power and inspirational reach that Dr Gertrude Panzer, a concentration camp escapee and one of the key figures in the educational reconstruction of post-war Germany, insisted that 'If I could have in Berlin three schools like St. George-in-the-East, Stepney, I could revolutionise the education of this city' (Birley 1978, 63)? How was it that in less than two-and-a-half years Bloom was able to achieve what HM Inspectors described in their 1948 report as 'a vision of what the new form of Secondary School can be' (Ministry of Education 1948,11)."
Alex Bloom: Introduction and Part 1 By Prof Michael Fielding, Lib Ed 1 May 2013

The pictures in this article and much of its content about the school comes from research by Prof Michael Fielding, who has published much of it online. 

'Democracy and Leadership' slides for Michael Fielding presentation 2014