In Our Experience by Stewart C Mason: A small treasure of a book from the University of Manchester library storePosted: February 24, 2014
Recently, I made my first foray into the University of Manchester store to retrieve a book edited by Stewart Mason, former Director of Education in Cambridgeshire. Mason was well-known for establishing a patronage scheme for schools in Leicestershire as well as promoting the value of artworks in schools, even before Pictures for Schools came into being in 1947; this collection was celebrated by exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1967 and 1980. In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, which was published in 1970 (the year after Pictures for Schools ended), turned out to be a real hidden treasure, offering really good context for the educational backdrop against which such schemes took place. After the Second World War, the educational landscape in Leicestershire changed rapidly to cope with a large rise in population, and the county undertook a number of sometimes controversial experiments, from becoming one of the first counties to abolish the 11-plus, to introducing fully comprehensive education, making use of new ideas in architecture such as open plan schools, building larger schools which could justify purchasing specialist equipment and resources, emphasising child-centred learning, particularly in the infant school, and developing community colleges inspired by Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire to foster learning for all ages and all of the community.
Like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who promoted the idea of the educational environment as being a ‘silent teacher’, Mason also emphasised the importance of the school environment on children’s perception of their education, saying: “[School buildings] can and do exert a powerful influence on what happens inside and around them.” Mason was passionate about introducing contemporary art to schools, and saw art education as having value for the life of the whole school, not just art departments, saying the arts could “release energy and add sparkle and inventiveness to the general life of the school” and “pay for themselves by quickening the whole tempo”.
In the book, which features essays by a number of teachers and headteachers in Leicestershire schools, there is a strong emphasis on learning through doing and discovery, rather than by rote (I feel that the cover really conveys this ethos of learning!). The vision of education promoted by the book recognises that individuals learn differently and are able to take some responsibility for their own learning and promotes emotional and intuitive development as much as academic achievement. It is seen to be important that the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an ‘integrated day’, taking a view of education in which teachers are learners as much as children, and creating an environment where children feel that there they are on equal terms with their teachers and are encouraged to take a questioning approach to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they became adults. Some of these ideas, such as learning by doing, along with the idea of the school as a total society implied by community-based education, are also reminiscent of those of American educator John Dewey.
It was also interesting to hear how schools used their artworks. At Albert Road Primary School, Hinckley, for instance there was at least one original, contemporary work of art in each classroom. Children were encouraged to handle artworks, and were exposed to all kinds of artwork, including abstract art. Albert Road Primary was also home to the Clown, a piece of sculpture in the playground which “is fondled and loved and climbed upon and sometimes even given clothing”. I’ve tried contacting the schools featured in the book to see if they still own the artworks mentioned, and if they are still in use in the school. Only one school has got back to me so far, saying the school has the artworks but they are no longer on display. They have invited me to visit, however, and I may take up the opportunity as I am keen to find out what happened to the artworks of a county once so well-known for its patronage but which has seen some of its artworks sold in recent years.