Bob Mackenzie aka RF Mackenzie

I have been delving back into the words and deeds of some of those educators who first convinced me there was more to education than schooling and more to schooling than transmission of information.

One of my heroes in education was Bob Mackenzie – or RF Mackenzie to give him his Sunday name. He taught for a brief time in the Forest School in the 1930s and this gave him the impetus, on demob from the RAF in 1946, to undertake the abbreviated teacher training course available at that time. As an educator, he had an abiding distaste for the industrial model of education, an antipathy that sprang out of his awareness of the arid academicism that was the touchstone of much of Scottish education at the time, in which teaching was delivered by rote and harsh discipline was dispensed at the end of a leather tawse.

Peter Murphy, who worked with him in Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen (the ‘other’ Summerhill), has written a biography of the great man, summarized on the Web. He wrote and said many repeatable words about education and about young people, but my favourites are these:

“Education is an old ramshackle windmill that goes on flapping its great arms long after the miller has left.”


“…the great mistake we educationists make is to suppose that schools are about education. It is not so…..they are about control.”

He also told the wonderful story in The Unbowed Head, his account of his time at Summerhill Academy and of his eventual sacking by a hostile collusion of local authority, parents and a coterie of his own staff:

“There is the story about a class who were asked to write a composition about the police. One boy wrote, “The police is bastards,” and left it at that; not another word on the page. The school and the police thereupon cooperated in an exercise in public relations. The boy was taken to police headquarters, shown the nature of their work, entertained in the canteen, and taken out in a car. Back in school he was given another chance to write his essay. He wrote, “The police is cunning bastards.”