R.F. Mackenzie A Tribute byVivienne Forrest Aberdeen Leopard - February 1988
Robert Fraser (R.F.) Mackenzie died on 2 December 1987 aged 77. He died quietly at home after a year of illness, terribly mourned by his friends, but unremarked by all save the most discerning of the press.
He died, ironically, just as the passing was announced of Summerhill Academy, the school over which he had been Head for six stormy years, and for which he had laid down his teaching life in April 1974.
Robert was born on 27 April 1919, the son of Robert Mackenzie, Stationmaster at Lethenty. Schooling was at Turriff and at Robert Gordon's College where he became Dux, but whose traditionalism he was to later reject.
In 1931 he graduated MA from Aberdeen University, where his two sisters followed him. Catherine, like her brother, went on to teach, as well as gaining her LRAM, while their younger sister Alice qualified as a doctor.
Today, Alice, now retired and living in Aberdeen, recalls the debt the three of them owed their parents, who in the best Scottish tradition sacrificed much to give their children the kind of education they could not have had themselves.
The home was strict and God-fearing, but no more than typically so. Alice sees her brother in their father: 'big-hearted, slow to criticise, always reasoning why - and not interested in money'.
Their mother did all the worrying about money, handling the family's finances with a housekeeping genius. The Mackenzie's were a well-travelled family, with the privileged rail travel that went with the father's employment. Robert's love of travel was further enhanced by his mother's tales of foreign travel in her years as a lady's maid.
This didn't stop his mother upbraiding him for cycling around Europe instead of settling down. This tour was undertaken in the company of Hunter Diack, who had been a year ahead of Robert at University, and who shared his ardent socialism, agnosticism, and conviction that they could set the world on fire.
Their adventures were reported back to be published in the Press and Journal under the country-type pseudonyms: Robert was 'Picky Say' - the farmer's hat - while Hunter was 'Clay Davie' - clay pipe.
The young men returned when they had run out of money, and then collaborated on an account of their journey for a book, Road Fortune, which was published by Macmillan in 1935.
This remarkable book is out-of-print and hard to come by, but, when found, reads with a deja-vu to make one's scalp prick. These two had travelled through a Europe about to explode, had talked with peasants, argued religion with seminary priests in Rome, and stayed a weekend with H. G. Wells at Grasse.
Both Robert Mackenzie and Hunter Diack were destined in their different ways to become controversial figures in education. A year or two after Road Fortune Robert cycled from London up to Northampton to be best man at Hunter's wedding.
It seems that at this stage R.F. Mackenzie thought of making a career in journalism, and to this end took up a post with the Mearns Leader. His sister Alice recalls that he also at one point embarked on a medical training in London, with the intention of paying his way with his writing.
He did some teaching at a variety of educational establishments in England and on the continent, including the progressive Forest School in Hampshire.
It was while teaching at a German school of language in 1938, whilst staying at the home of a Jewish vet, that the Nazis attacked the house in an orgy of smashing Jewish shops and homes, in the aptly-named horror of 'crystal night'. Robert returned home to work with the department of censorship, in a telephone-listening capacity.
When war broke out Hunter Diack was by now a teacher at Gordon's College. The two friends, together with John Foster, John Mackintosh and Vincent Park, launched the 2d weekly North East Review on a 'very indifferent public'.
The Review was intended to be the definitive answer to the Kemsley newspapers, full of honest comment and biting North East wit. 'Jamie Fleeman' was rude about thinly-disguised local figures - and their wives, one of whom was 'Muggie Jean'. There were recipes by Janet Murray, some marvelous poetry, and a serial, as nail biting to its authors as to its readers, for they rarely knew what was to happen next.
Thirty five years later 'R.F.' was to give wholehearted support to Leopard writing for it on several occasions, including a piece 'Ban the Belt' in the first issue, a fine profile of John R. Allan.
In 1941 both Hunter Diack and Robert Mackenzie were called up into the RAF, and though they continued to send in contributions, the Review was run by those who were left. In 1945 its editor was Alexander Scott, who went on to become a distinguished poet and dramatist. In October 1946 the publication, by now 6d and monthly, finally closed, with a dying declaration about 'the deplorable condition of journalism in the North East'.
R.F. Mackenzie spent his war as a navigator in Bomber Command, enjoying his spells of duty in Canada and South Africa. On leave in London he met his future wife, Diana, who was serving in the WRNS. They were married in 1945. After demobilisation Robert and Diana returned to Aberdeen, Robert taking up teacher training at the College of Education. By now he was 36, and sure of his vocation.
His first post after teacher training was and English master at Galashiels Academy, where he remained until 1952. While at Galashiels Robert wrote features for Schools Broadcasting, then under the direction of the renowned Archie Adam.
In 1952 R.F. Mackenzie moved to a post at Templehall School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and five years later was appointed Head of Braehead, a new junior secondary school at Buckhaven. He remained at Braehead for eleven happy and successful years, putting into practice the theories of progressive educationists such as A.S. Neill, whom he greatly admired. At the same time he was formulating his own ideas - with the backing of a vigorous parent's council.
R.F. Mackenzie made the schooling of Braehead truly child-centred, going so far as to acquire a house in the country to make a weekend activity centre. Many of the pupils were from disadvantaged back grounds and had never experienced the countryside. Mackenzie knew and loved the outdoors and tried to pass on this enjoyment to the children.
Articles poured from his pen, in a most readable style born of his love of language. Three books, at two-yearly intervals, were written during this period at Braehead. A Question of Living was published in 1963, Escape From the Classroom in 1965 and The Sins of the Children in 1967. Braehead School closed with the coming of comprehensive education.
When R.F. Mackenzie was appointed to the Headship of Summerhill Academy, Aberdeen in 1968 he might have have thought the name of the school to be a good omen, for 'Summerhill' had been the name of A.S. Neill's famous school. Nor could he anticipate that he would not get the quality of support that he had received in Fife.
As it turned out, his radical ideas split the staff and confused the parents. In 1972 49 teachers - over half - accused him of an 'unusual and particularly permissive philosophy'. This philosophy included the banning of corporal punishment, which he considered barbaric, especially for girls. He also thought that the examination system should be abolished in favour of continuous assessment.
R.F. Mackenzie saw only the children and their needs, and could not and would not compromise. In the end there was only one way out, and in April 1974 he was suspended - in effect sacked - by and Education Committee at the end of its wits. Three years later R.F. Mackenzie wrote a book, The Unbowed Head, about the affair.
Betsy Roberts is described in the book, as a year mistress who dared to allow pupils to sit in her room, discuss many things and call her by her first name.
Betsy is still proud that she supported Robert Mackenzie, and pays tribute to is kind friendship over the years since 1974. She speaks of visiting him in his last illness, of exchanging quotations. His to her was Gandhi's 'A thing I fear greatly is the hardness of heart of the educated'.
Bev Sissons is another friend who remembers R.F. Mackenzie's encouragement when she was writing her own book about her teaching years at Peterhead Jail. It was typical of the man that he suggested, 'can't you write something about the prison officers? - they do a hard job'.
Since his retirement R.F. Mackenzie was tireless in writing and lecturing in the cause of educational reform. He wrote a much-acclaimed programme for the Open University. He wrote an essay on education in Scotland which formed part of the programme for 'Jotters', a production by the Wildcat Theatre Company which came to Aberdeen's Arts Centre in March last year.
He attended conferences abroad, especially in France and Sweden. He was an active Patron, along with such figures as Rabbi Lionel Blue, of the new Oaktree Educational Trust, which aims to open a school later this year in inner Liverpool for children who cannot easily fit into a normal comprehensive.
'He got more and more radical the older he got', smiles his widow Diana. However radical, R.F. Mackenzie was never a paid-up member of any political party. Though he called himself an agnostic, 'he lived the Sermon on the Mount', and his kindness was legendary.
In 1986, the year before he died, there were reunions at both Braehead and Summerhill. Robert and Diana Mackenzie went to both, and were overwhelmed at what Diana calls 'the pure love' that met him.
His illness had already begun to take hold, but, characteristically he refused to accept it, spending his time in hospital revising his latest book. He came home from hospital to die in his farmhouse beside the Dee, his family around him.
Press Cutting (1) - Paper unknown:
Former radical head dies
CONTROVERSIAL former Aberdeen headmaster Robert Mackenzie has died.
And today a member of the old Aberdeen Town Council education committee said time had vindicated his progressive ideas.
"Bob Mackenzie was a pioneer, and much of what he believed in is now accepted practice in schools," said Councillor Bob Middleton.
Mr. Middleton was one of the councillors who defended the Summerhill Academy headmaster in the early 1970s during a furore over discipline at the school.
His radical views led to a clash with the majority of the staff and parents, who claimed discipline had completely broken down.
The education committee suspended him in 1974 and he remained suspended until his retirement the following year.
One of his former pupils, Rosalie Sheard, who organised a re-union just last year, said; "He had a method of compassion and understanding rather than the old army-style discipline."
Mr. Mackenzie, who was 76, lived at West Cults Farm. He had spent his retirement lecturing and writing.
He is survived by his wife, Diana, two sons and a daughter.
Press Cutting (2) - Paper unknown:
R. F. MACKENZIE
One of the last great individualists in Scottish education, Rober Fraser - "R F" - Mackenzie died last week. He was aged 77. He would have appreciated the irony that his passing was reported on the day the death knell was pronounced on Summerhill Academy, Aberdeen, the school he presided over during six controversial years as head until an exasperated education committee sacked him in the spring of 1974. R F, as his innumerable articles in The TESS over the years testified, was a man of breathtaking learning who inspired some and infuriated others. He was not a consensus man, a diplomat or an administrator - a combination which made the Summerhill combustion inevitable once 49 of his staff rebelled in 1972 against his "unusual and particularly permissive philosophy", which promptly inspired counter-charges from 37 other members of staff. Mackenzie, the first person appointed from outside Aberdeen to head a non-selective school there, was ill-equipped to mend such a breach. "He proved an almost impossible man to help" was the verdict of Aberdeen's education convener. Or, as The TESS editorialized at the time: "Even his best friends admit that R F though one of the nicest men to know, is capable of great indiscretion". Although he was best known for his Summerhill days, it was as head of the experimental Braehead Junior Secondary in Buckhaven, Fife, from 1957 to 1968 that he was able to formulate some of his ideas. A vigorous opponent of corporal punishment and examination systems, he was not able to abolish either at Braehead but he did give full vent to his view that education should be enjoyable, and that the timetable should not tyrannize opportunities for pupils. He gave a high priority to outdoor education and to interdisciplinary studies, and he also set u a very active parent's council. The affection and love which he could inspire were amply displayed last year when reunions of former pupils and staff at both Braehead and Summerhill were almost sell-out occasion's. Mackenzie is survived by his wife Dianna, two sons and a daughter.
GLASGOW HERALD Thursday December 10 1987 EDUCATION HERALD
An educationist who wouldn't compromise R. F. Mackenzie, who died last week, was probably both the most celebrated and the most controversial headteacher in Scotland since the war (in which he served with distinction as a navigator in Bomber Command). His ideas were radical, visionary, and deeply compassionate, but he failed as a head simply because he lacked the administrative and political gifts - some would add the cynicism - which are necessary for a headteacher in a beleaguered state comprehensive. He would not compromise; he would not play the system. He would have been the best suited to the headmastership of an independent school, backed by sympathetic parents and teachers and trustees. But that was never to be.
And although his period as headteacher of Summerhill Academy, Aberdeen, ended in despair and acrimony, too much blame should not be attached to the old Aberdeen Corporation, which before the reorganisation of local government was one of the most efficient and progressive education authorities in Scotland. The man who effected Mr. Mackenzie's removal, the Aberdeen education convener,, Councillor Roy Pirie, was a humane Labour politician of the old school. He believed passionately in comprehensive education, but he eventually decided he could no longer support R. F. Mackenzie because, in his opinion, his school was in utter turmoil.
Whether it was in turmoil or not is still a matter of dispute in Aberdeen. What is not disputed is that a considerable faction of the staff was opposed to Mr. Mackenzie's methods and ideas; worse, from Councillor Pirie's point of view, was Mr. Mackenzie's refusal to seek the co-operation of this faction.
Before he was suspended (as it turned out, sacked; he never taught again) on April 1, 1974, R. F. Mackenzie was allowed to speak to Aberdeen Education Committee. He gave a supremely eloquent address. It was a public meeting, and many of the people who witnessed it thought it was the most moving speech they had ever heard. He spoke of children with wounds in their souls. He could have cured these wounds, but he was not allowed to because he had been given a divided staff. He was not on trial, he said; it was the comprehensive school that was on trial.
Councillor Pirie won the day by 16 votes to six, and Mr. Mackenzie was removed from Summerhill. The next morning's press was emotive. The Daily Record's story began: " I accuse Aberdeen Education Committee of treachery."
R. F. Mackenzie went on to write a book about his experiences - and , as he saw it, his betrayal - at Summerhill, to add to his others, which included Escape from the Classroom and Sins of the Children. He had a felicitous and lucid prose style, a testimony to his own traditional education at Robert Gordon's College. But he came to regard his own formal education as worthless, just as he came to regard examinations as a tyrannical anti-educational device for oppression, and just as he came to regard disruptive pupils as the salt of the earth. He was a good man, and a noble one, but his very considerable talents were perhaps those of a religious leader - a preacher or a prophet - rather than those of a practical educationist.
The Scotsman - Letters page Debt to R. F. Mackenzie
Beverly Sissons Cochran. Aboyne. Aberdeenshire. December 7, 1987 Sir, - There are many in Scotland who would have been proud to write the obituary for R. F. Mackenzie. The curt dismissive piece in The Scotsman on December 5 was a disgrace.
Bob Mackenzie was a brave and good man. His ideas are accepted now, but he has never been acknowledged properly. His own writings will stand beside A. S. Neill's A Dominie's Log in my view.
I know many teachers in Aberdeenshire who owe him a debt for encouraging them as they struggled to maintain high standards of care and civility in the greedy, bullying and competitive atmosphere in many of our schools, which are a reflection of our society, and not a world apart after all.
He helped me when I wrote about my teaching years in HM Prison, Peterhead - indeed it was Bob who said to me: "Can't you write about the prison officers' lives? Their work is awful. Who would want such a job?"
He will be missed by many, for his critical ability, his scholarship, his vision, his wit, his kindness and his hospitality, but above all for his constant insistence that children should always be treated with love and understanding.
Beverly Sissons Cochran. Aboyne. Aberdeenshire.
Katrine Graham-Yeoll - Banff - December 7, 1987
Sir, - It was disturbing to read the casual and superficial obituary of Robert Mackenzie in this paper. There are many people who could have done this in a more informed and sensitive way.
Through the example by his writings, based on erudition, and immediate life experiences, he helped to pioneer much needed changes in our schools. He also had the courage to stand against the lingering obscenity of corporal punishment in Scottish schools.
His compassion and understanding for young persons and serious minded educators, were incomprehensible to those with lesser minds and hearts.
This paper published my letter of support for him during the time of the Summerhill dispute.
His book the Unbowed Head, will, in the future, gain importance as an educational classic. His contribution to Scotland, and to the process of education in a human content has been immense.