In Memory of Professor Maurice Holt – by Mike Grenier

270Mike Grenier’s eulogy in memory of Professor Maurice Holt who died on 11th June, 2016, at the age of 84 – the founding father of Slow Education and an inspiration to us all.

Every Christmas I meet with two friends who I have known since we were seven years old. A fine meal at the aptly named ‘L’Anima’ restaurant in London restored my soul at a time in the school calendar when there isn’t much spiritual solace to be found in report writing and exam marking. They told me it was about time I found some like-minded educationists and stopped ruining our reunions with my Chardonnay-infused rants about the state of modern schooling. The very next evening I watched a wonderful documentary about the Slow Food movement in Italy and a light bulb came on. I then scurried off to the internet and found an article in an American journal, ‘Phi Delta Kappan’ by a retired Professor from the University of Colorado in Denver. I had visions of a remote figure now living the life described by Thoreau in ‘Walden’.

I contacted the email address at the bottom of the article, not sure if it would find its way out to the Rockies. I was delighted when Maurice responded promptly to say that he would love to meet, that he lived in Oxford and he was already seeing some of his ideas enacted in a number of schools in the North-West of England. Maurice was delighted that there were educators from all denominations who shared his passion for fighting the tyranny of the standards-driven school system which he felt had driven a wedge between teachers and students, and between students and the deeper learning that he valued.

Maurice’s experience of being a Headteacher allowed him to see the impact of government interference on the morale and professionalism of teachers. His specialism in Higher Education was curriculum review and I always felt that his vision for a comprehensive, subtle and sensitive education was one that would allow students of all dispositions and backgrounds to flourish. In the flesh he had a bi-focal gaze: steely and determined when he heard waffle and cant, bright and inspirational when he was expressing his passions. Maurice sparkled with good humour, bright wit and a very real and genuine love of schools and schooling.

Over the past few years Andy Raymer and then Mark Moorhouse from Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale and Hilary Hinchliffe from St Silas CofE Primary School in Blackburn developed their staff and curriculum in ways that were influenced by Maurice’s thinking. Joe Harrison-Greaves helped spread the word to other schools and organisations, and with Maurice’s daughter, Madeleine, adding her considerable experience of how to connect schools with their communities with her ‘Meet the Parents’ movement, there was a renewed spring in Maurice’s step. Ideas that he had developed over the past fifty years began to gain traction and he was optimistic that a school system based on trusting the professional judgement of teachers, that was ambitious for constant self-improvement, and encouraged schools and teachers to prioritise joy in learning would be possible.

 

In a review of his thinking in 2015, Maurice stated,

 

‘The purpose of Slow Education is to improve the quality of teaching in our schools, by emphasising the need for students to understand rather than merely memorise answers to predetermined questions.

Our concern is with the process of education, with the ability of students to learn for themselves and from each other, rather than the regurgitation of right answers. We encourage team teaching, creative thinking and a climate of possibility and challenge, so as to advance the personal development of every student. To achieve this, students need time to reflect and argue, to explore and discover, to challenge and question. Hence the concept of slow education, and its relevance to the distinction between slow food and fast food.’

 

Meetings with Maurice were always convivial: there was always food, always plenty of laughter and then occasionally there would be some serious talking. This was always conducted best while walking. Wrapped in scarf and charcoal overcoat Maurice often reminded me of one of the early incarnations of Dr Who. He hated management gobbledegook and sophistry and I will never forget the blood draining from his face at the Institute of Education one morning as a windbag of a professor droned on and on; after 90 minutes the cup of tea that had been offered by our host still had not appeared and Maurice almost had to be carried out of the canteen. Whenever we met I could see his blood curdle when jargon replaced clear diction and when common sense was overwhelmed by pseudoscience. Maurice thought clearly, wrote precisely and argued with wit, good grace and above all with a powerful combination of the intellectual and the personal. What was taught and how it was taught mattered; people mattered; lives mattered; society mattered. His compassionate vision for a style of education that is humane, life affirming and generous is one that is sorely needed in this and other countries that pursue results at all costs. But he was never wishy-washy and his acute logic and powerful appeal to method and process meant that his vision was robust and convincing.

And what is more he had a very winning laugh, a mischievous twinkle and the ability to bring warmth and generosity of spirit to those who had the good fortune to know him.

 

 

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