R F MacKenzie: the last word on education

As part of a series about radical educationalists in Scotland the SEAS offers a guest blog to Ros Kane who writes about R F MacKenzie – the unbowed head. Ros is seeking to form a RF MacKenzie Society and her contact details are at the end of the blog. Enjoy!

‘If you are going to create a new society, it is in the schools that you must begin.’ So wrote Bob Mackenzie. Have the man and his work and his books been forgotten in the world of education? As the years go by, that is more and more likely, which is why it is high time to set up an R F Mackenzie Society to preserve his legacy and use it to inspire and influence anyone anywhere, of any age, any profession or walk of life, with an interest in the all-round well-being of young people.

In case you know little about him, here are the bare bones. He was born in 1910 in the Aberdeenshire countryside; his mother had been quite adventurous when young;  his father, a station master, put a high premium on independent thought. There was a warm sense of local community. After getting an English degree at Aberdeen, he embarked with his friend on an extraordinary six-month journey across Europe, some of which was fast becoming fascist. The two set out in winter on pushbikes with a typewriter and big bag of oatmeal. At times they travelled together; at others, separately. They recorded their dramatic experiences in the book Road Fortune.  One highlight was a visit to Mackenzie’s hero, H G Wells, in the south of France.

Mackenzie wondered about becoming a journalist, but felt no pressure to conform or settle down. Somehow he spent time at a small eccentric forest school in Hampshire run by the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. Here he learnt about education in nature and an alternative way to treat and be with children. ‘I became a child again.’ Then the war came. He served as a bomber commander, but not before he had travelled to South Africa, the US and Canada for the training, experiences which matured him and opened his eyes to other social classes and cultures.

During the war he met Diana; they married. Realising a family man needed a secure income, he decided to train as a secondary teacher. His first job was teaching English and history at a school in the Borders, then principal teacher of English in a Glenrothes school.  The go-ahead head teacher with a belief in outdoor education had a huge influence on Mackenzie. Before long he became head of Braehead junior secondary modern school in Buckhaven, Fife, a golden opportunity to apply his ideas because it was a new school. He has written in detail what happened there.  The main themes: his attempts to outlaw corporal punishment, to develop Inverlair Lodge in the Highlands as a residential place for students and staff, and his opposition to exams and rigid timetables. I remember visiting Braehead: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds being played in assembly instead of hymns, the open office door of the friendly, welcoming young school secretary, and a teacher who had moved from Nottingham to Buckhaven in order to teach there. The distinguished mountaineer Hamish Brown for years took groups of students on ambitious Highland treks. Mackenzie had a particular interest in the ’underdog.’  This was no ordinary school.

It might come as no surprise that he was squeezed out of his job. Half the staff opposed his methods, and he admitted himself that he didn’t take the parents along with him. Given the controversy in the media, he was amazed to be offered the headship of Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen. The powers-that-be wanted to look progressive by appointing a chap like him. The school’s name is ironic as Mackenzie was a devotee of A S Neill who wrote: ‘I admire your sticking to the State system. I ran awa’ frae it.’

But disaster was at hand. There were similar problems as before and he was suspended on full pay at the age of 64. Some students went on strike in protest. He spent the rest of his life writing, lecturing and broadcasting about education, and died of stomach cancer in 1987.

Mackenzie believed in the innate goodness of children, strengthened by the arrival of two sons and a daughter. He saw the dire effects not only of parental treatment but of the threadbare quality of  society and of the hierarchies and the traditional, adult-centred nature of secondary education. He knew his methods could help prevent delinquency, but, as he said after being sacked, ‘they wouldn’t let us.’

His excellent books outlive him: 

Road Fortune 1935

A Question of Living 1963

Escape from the Classroom 1965

The Sins of the Children 1967

State School 1970

The Unbowed Head 1976 (about Summerhill Academy)

A Search for Scotland (pub 1989.)

His last book, Manifesto for the Educational Revolution, 1980, was rejected by publishers – too radical. But you can read it online. 

In Scotland there have been reunions and a symposium in his memory, and some of his Braehead former students run an informative website: http://www.braehead.info. Peter Murphy who taught at Summerhill wrote a biography, The Life of R F Mackenzie: A Prophet without Honour.  I know that teacher training courses have included his work in their curriculum but I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t any longer.

It seems to me that he developed his philosophy not only because of his childhood and countryside background but also through such wide experiences in Europe, Hampshire, the war and fatherhood. This was no young teacher with a sheltered life. He brought enormous amounts of understanding, compassion and reflection, and his life work was a passionate, exhausting attempt to use what he knew to enrich – in fact, transform – the lives of young people who were being fed a diet of impoverishment on all sides. 

Mackenzie was in a line of libertarian educationalists, most of whom came to grief in the state system, such as Michael Duane, Gerry German and Chris Searle.  His wife said, ‘He got more and more radical the older he got.’ Given what is going on in our schools these days, his practice needs to be promoted throughout the UK. A Society about it seems the most likely way to do this. If you might be interested in joining, please contact me at 15 Matcham Road, London E11 3LE. Tel 0208 555 5248 roskane@btinternet.com.

1 thought on “R F MacKenzie: the last word on education”

  1. Over a number of years, people who had been pupils at the schools R.F. Mackenzie had been headteacher in, came to me and expressed their gratitude for how they thought their experiences in the environment he had encouraged had changed and shaped their outlook on themselves and the part they understood they could play in the world. Many spoke about finding confidence to keep asking questions, until they found answers that satisfied them, refusing to accept dogma.

    Liked by 1 person

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