BOOK REVIEW by PHILIP TOOGOOD, Trustee of PERSONALISED EDUCATION NOW. Many thanks to Philip for this review of an important book.

OVERSCHOOLED but UNDEREDUCATED by John Abbott with Heather MacTaggart
ISBN 1-8553-9623-4 (hardcover)


As a young student John Abbott had to write an essay on the observation by HG Wells in his Outline of History written in 1920,

“Human History becomes more and more a race between Education and Catastrophe”.

Most are agreed that we are confronted by a crisis in the world which is at once global and local. We also recognise that the crisis is made by the human species. If pressed, we would also concur that all proposed solutions are so far only partial. They address aspects of the crisis whilst leaving the totality of the threat and its human root cause untouched. We are brooding on our fate as we dandle our grand children on our knees and we know that it is they who will have to endure the consequences if we do nothing or fall short of success in our efforts to avoid Armageddon.

For more of John Abbott and the 21st Century Learning Initiative visit: 

Few have the temerity to argue that it’s we who must change; that techno-fixes will only postpone and may worsen the problems; that economic moves to ‘fix’ post-modern industrial society merely add fuel to the fire of the burning platform onto which we are clinging; that ‘more of the same’, as we focus on symptom after symptom of the impending catastrophe with desperate reforming moves, will only make things worse in the long run as we bask in the illusory safety of short term medication.

John Abbott is one of those who have the courage to tell it as it is. He writes with firm historical understanding of how we got into this mess.  He writes of a world crisis  “of climate change, terrorism, over-exploitation of resources and sheer mental collapse”. He goes straight to the point when he identifies the root cause as our catastrophically inappropriate system of education, particularly in this country, but also wherever this western model is reproduced in the world.

The system of education , he argues, stifles our natural development to become people who can respond creatively to situations which endanger our survival as a species and which lead inexorably to the destruction of our planet home.  We are losing the capacity to survive.
The platform is burning and his book is a timely wake-up call if we are to survive as a species and if the planet which is our home is to continue to be habitable for us. He explains cogently that our system of education is based on teaching the young to be good at being taught. It therefore accomplishes exactly the opposite to what is needed to meet the challenge of the burning platform. The innate capacity of human beings to “think responsibly for themselves” and to act as “responsible subversives” is thereby suppressed.

His argument illustrates a stark emerging reality that ‘Tomorrow has been abolished and Today will be re-enacted as if Yesterday had never been’….. a chilling proclamation  sprayed on the walls of a Cambridge college in the late 1950’s.

John Abbot’s book, as the title “Over-schooled but Under-educated”, with its sub-title “How the crisis in education is jeopardising our Adolescents” suggests, is addressed to those wishing to responsibly subvert our system of education as it is enshrined in our schools.

Abbott holds out the hope that if we closely observe the mess we are in we shall be able to work together to change our schools. However, unlike those who want to do away with schools altogether in favour of a system of home-based education within a framework of invitational learning centres, he sees the possibility that what we now know to be the way the human brain works can be the driving force behind this last ditch attempt to make schools places of educational adventure and renewal.

Others place their hopes in the role of Information and communication technology , or re-structuring the organisation of schools, or changing the role of  the teacher, or spending more on shining new buildings, or starting school younger, or prolonging school until the age of 18. Abbott writes that the fault lies not with any one of these areas but with our denial of the cause of our failing. We are in denial of our own evolution and are treating ourselves and our children as a problem rather than as an opportunity.

He especially singles out adolescence as a time of opportunity in defiance of the conventional viewpoint that it is a stage to be endured, to be hedged around with great limitations, and during which the young person must be obliged to suppress that instinct for adventure and inventiveness which defines the ground base of human creativity. Adolescence is an opportunity in disguise, he reckons. Revolt is the flip side of the grit and determination to survive, to be self-reliant and to work collaboratively to ensure that ‘Tomorrow will [not] be abolished” but will bring a better world. His elixir is set out in this book. We should drink deep.
Confronting the Past
Unlike many blogs, sound-bites and twittering side-swipes at the lamentable scene of adolescence  we have created  in our society, Abbott’s book is a masterpiece resting upon considerable historical research.  He makes a rigorous selection of events and references to underpin his narrative and analysis.

He sets out an entirely valid narrative of how, over the last 500 years we have taken turnings which have brought us to this point where we now fear adolescence as a problem rather than an opportunity.

It is of great significance that his evidence base is drawn in large part from the work of the global 21st century Learning Initiative which developed out of the British Education 2000 Foundation. This has provided Abbott with a team of “some 60 researchers, policy makers, politicians and practitioners who started to bring together thinking from different perspectives to produce a synthesis across the biological and social sciences on the principles of human learning”.  Abbott’s work, however, is more than a mere synthesis and justifies description as a creative masterpiece, in Browning’s words “a flash of the will that can… that out of three sounds (he) frames, not a fourth sound but a star”.

For Politicians
Abbott not only describes in historical  form how we got into this mess, but also, for politicians, how we can get out of it…and “rapidly” if we take the appropriate steps. This book is therefore firmly addressed to politicians as they wrestle with the short-termism which is the condition of their jobs. He recognises that they are obliged to seek re-election at least every five years and that if they are to retain power at the time of the ballot box they must balance their idealism in the long term vision with the need to please a majority in the short term.
Hitler reportedly rejoiced “How fortunate we are that the people have not been taught to think!” This sinister situation was tacitly acknowledged also by Julius Nyerere, former president of Zambia, who commiserated with the leaders of western democracies by pointing to their dilemma. He said that their decisions required endorsement by a populace which had received a bad education which had not given them the critical awareness to make the connections necessary to vote for appropriate solutions to the emerging world problems. Nyerere, before he retired to a small farm, had set out plans for schools which would not only educate in critical awareness and respect for learning based on intellectual activity, but would at the same time enable young people to produce the goods and services necessary for their own and other people’s survival by providing experience in collaborative productive and practical work.

Abbott has ten beauty tips for politicians of the new regime which will follow after the election in 2010. They are contained within his book but are also available on the internet in

“A Briefing Paper for Parliamentarians on the Design Faults at the Heart of English Education”

• Children should be weaned off their dependence on teachers and institutions.
• Children should be encouraged to develop their own individual and discrete talents.
• Families should be given every chance to learn with their children from an early age.
• Young people should have apprenticeship style relationships with skilled members of the community in a hands-on manner.
• The curriculum should be much less prescriptive for young people and should emphasise thinking skills, communication, collaboration and decision making.
• Real local responsibility and control of education should be recreated by replacing the present moribund local authorities with smaller Boards of education.
• Teachers should be re-trained in their initial and continuing professional development with a new notion of the professionalism required to be a teacher in the revised system of education.
• Resources should be redistributed towards the early years of education, front-loading the profile of allocation, so that the foundations are more securely laid for the process of growing towards independence of learning in later years.
• Continuity of education should be reinforced by creating a more seamless progression from 5 to 15 years in a new 5-15 year school.
• Education should cease to be seen as just another commodity in a banking system of learning and should be seen more as a process of lived experience which prepares the individual for collaboration in a cooperative  democratic society.

For Teachers
 Abbott writes not only for politicians. This is within the logic of his own analysis of what is needed, for he outlines the need for a sea change in the thinking of our whole society towards education and for a movement for change to come from the grass roots upwards rather than from the central direction of politicians downwards.
He writes for teachers also. At one point he suggests that a majority of the teaching profession will have had no experience of working in schools before the last big statutory decree of 1988. They will therefore have become socialised into a situation where they have to knuckle down to following in detail the instructions of central government. The idea of being a proud and independent profession which is completely devoted to the needs of the learners will be quite alien to them as the whole weight of a naming and blaming process of school testing is forced upon them and they are rewarded with high pay if they toe the line and please the inspection regime of Ofsted. 

If what Abbott is recommending were to come about the whole role of a teacher would change. This requires not only knowledge about what form this change should take but also the development of the capacities, skills and experience which will enable them to ‘walk the walk’ as well as to ‘talk the talk’. Of course, they would learn by doing and reflecting on the work in hand, but they would also need support. This book will be an indispensable source book for their re-training and should be available on every training and re-training course, and in every staff room in the land.

The question “Who will teach the teachers?” is a perennial one. There are not too many examples in existence of good practice, openly displayed, which are not covertly carried on in defiance of central government instructions. Most teachers who realise what they have let themselves in for leave the profession within a few years. If they stay, it is to pay the mortgage. They endure the brickbats from above and the hard times from a degenerating society with fortitude, until they can draw their pensions at an increasingly receding date in the future. Now that the rhetoric of government is changing towards what Abbott is recommending there is still fear that if they do not prioritise obedience to instructions from government, no matter how much the message may have changed, Ofsted will still stab them in the back.

Abbott’s book will at least give them the hope that a better world may be round the corner in their professional work. Time and again since my own resignation, when I have spoken along the same lines as Abbott at conferences, I have been applauded by Head Teachers, but when I then retorted “So why don’t you get on and do these things?” I have received the reply, “Well, isn’t it obvious? We don’t want to lose our jobs!”


For Reflective Adolescents
Adolescents, too, will welcome the thesis which respects their time of life.  Their growing capabilities and instinct to question are an entirely valid part of their lives. The explanation of this thinking which Abbott makes within a historical perspective shows how we have come to this point . How reassuring this would be as they grasp the poisoned chalice. There is reassurance in being able to understand what a disastrous tale of missed opportunities has led to this framing of their experience by remote centralising politicians. For the young, as well as for politicians, teachers, parents, seniors and others It is necessary to know where they are coming from so that they can more readily resolve to undertake their own and now very possibly arduous journeys to where they need and ought to be.

For Parents
Parents, when surveyed about their needs in their role as parents, almost invariably plead, as a matter of priority, for advice and support in the matter of dealing with their ‘teenage children. They would find Abbott’s book a searchlight probing into the perplexing darkness of the predicament they quite suddenly encounter when their children reach their early ‘teens.

Yet such is the fear (and possibly guilt) sensed by parents about these issues that opportunities to discuss at evening group meetings are seldom to be found. Thus the problems and opportunities they could encounter with their adolescent young people are not productive of local collective action to do things with them, rather than to, or for them. Action in support of the local agencies of youth work and other services are not often undertaken by parents. Abbott’s book would provide the agenda for such meetings to discuss chapter by chapter. Every parent should ponder the messages this book contains about adolescence.

Abbott is particularly interesting about the increasing alienation of adolescents from the adult world after the more inclusive period of early childhood is over. In( chapter 7) Adolescents Left Out, and before this in two chapters entitled (chapter 5) Hands-on Apprentices to Hands-off Pupils and (chapter 6) Lest We Fail to Learn from our Mistakes, Abbott traces how the early Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and the subsequent era of imperial Britain in the 19th destroyed the culture of apprenticeship.

He argues that the practice of apprenticeship on the eve of the arrival of the factory system which was to take production away from the domestic foyer, was at the root of the developments which made Britain for a while a dynamic and collaborative society.  For a time it seemed that the aspirations of Milton, called in by Cromwell during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, might be fulfilled in England,“I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices both public and private, of peace and war.”

He traces how this was not to be. How prescient the Luddite machine smashers were to be in their fear of what the mechanisation of work would do to the dignity of labour. How apposite also were the protests of the Chartist Women when they lamented that the factory system was destroying the basis of family life as the men were taken away to work as wage slaves in factories and their children were obliged to leave home to go to school daily in preparation for the same fate..

Abbott argues that industrial and imperial success pushed the system of education into reflecting the class stratification of the new industrial processes and that the imperial overlay with its effect on the aristocracy and wealthy middle classes did likewise. The 3-tiered system of Public, Grammar and Elementary schools became the dominant pattern. Thus the centralisation of control of education took place, as in Germany and France in the 1870’s and the State laid out a framework from which only the very rich could buy their way out into Public Boarding schools. This escape route effectively withdrew the young from local society and intensified the process of the imposition of central control.

For Seniors
The retirement of senior citizens into a limbo of Saga cruises and age-related cocoons of relaxation now can be seen in quite a different light as the age profile of the population has changed and is changing. There are so many more active senior citizens whose skills are being lost and not replaced that it is a matter of urgency that the young retired in localities compensate for this loss of the apprentice system and the disintegration of our society. Abbott insists that Intergenerational discourse and activity is an essential part of the re-creation of communities of learning as revolutions of transport, information and communication technology, mobile phones, the internet and the media take a profound hold on the way we live.
Education Versus Catastrophe
Abbott quotes HG Wells in his War of Worlds in the very early 20th century in which he depicts the crisis in our evolution as being resolved only as a result of ‘Education’ winning the race against ‘Catastrophe’. He sees clearly that the race is still on. He wants to defy the trend away from books towards the visual media in the formation of a general will to make things better in society. For this to happen his book would need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and be the text for study and discussion by adult education circles throughout the UK. This is not impossible but is highly unlikely, given the decline in adult education. There is a possibility that instead of such study circles being the natural location for such work, the book itself should be the basis for the revival of such adult education… something akin to the coffee houses of the 18th century in London, or the salons of the Encyclopédistes in Paris or in the salons of China in the 16th century.

There is a danger that Abbott’s book will be seen as just another bleat against the rising generation in the spirit of ‘things ain’t what they used to be”. Or, indeed also, that the very erudition and completeness of his narrative and analysis will be regarded as disqualification for the applicability of reforms based on his recommendations. Cynicism and lack of hope that things can be made better in schools is a potent brake on anything being done to radically transform our schools in the spirit and with the rationale which Abbott presents in this book.
After all, the catastrophe of climate change has not yet come home to us in the form of a tsunami down the East coast and over the totally inadequate Thames flood barriers. The crisis of our economy, based upon the fallacy of continuing and rampant consumerism, has not yet reached the retailing malls in the Boxing day sales shopping rush. The terrorism of Al Quaeda has not yet produced the ultimate horror of the improvised nuclear explosive device  set off in the London underground at peak rush hour period. The mental collapse of which Abbott writes has not yet reached pandemic proportions and is still spoken of as an aberration from the norm to be treatable by a combination of medication and counselling to enable individuals to weather their storms of personal breakdown. We still place our hope in techno-fixes, in an overwhelming conviction that if we do little or nothing the ‘good old days’ will return.
The enemy within, according to Abbott, is our education system. The route out from our predicament is a transformation of ourselves by following the logic of what we now know scientifically to be the way we have evolved as the dominant species in order to make radical changes to our school system, to our nurturing family structures, to our working practices and to our daily living. To paraphrase the words of Henry Morris, in his Memorandum for the county of Cambridgeshire when he drew out a complete plan for education in the Cambridgeshire countryside in the aftermath of the First World War, we should organise education so that good education is not the outcome of good government, but good government the product of good education!

I know from personal experience of 50 years of dedication to the responsible subversion of our school system that it can work. I have experienced the speed and effectiveness of transformation carried out practically along the lines Abbott suggests. I, too, have learnt what is needed for this to be successful. Concrete examples of what happens when these matters are attended to in this way are desperately needed. This is necessary to accompany the masterly narrative and analysis by Abbott of how we got into this hole and how we can begin to dig our way out of it.

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