Skip to content

Tag: Capper

Talk-ED: Phil Capper – He spoke but did we listen?

Stuart Middleton
7 November 2011


I have a number of times recently mused on the extent to which good ideas are ignored only to emerge at some time later in a similar or new shape but essentially repeating or building on those earlier ideas. The same is true of people. I have worked with some of these people.

The multilingual nature of the school population is now at least acknowledged and in many placed even understood. The ways in which this impacts on the curriculum and its delivery in classrooms is now accepted. Indeed major programmes such as the highly effective Kotahitanga professional development programme seeks to help teachers put in place the shibboleth first put forward by Sylvia Ashton-Warner – “take the native imagery of the student and use it for teaching material.” This was also advocated strongly by Bernard Gadd, an English teacher who knew long before the rest of us caught up with it that the world in which we taught English was changing dramatically and irrevocably. Indeed he was to some extent seen as eccentric and a bit of a nuisance as he challenged all-comers about their practice and on occasion their principles.

But without the Sylvia Ashton-Warners, the Bernard Gadds, change would later be much more difficult. We need these people who move ahead and see a world that is beyond our comprehension but of which we slowly develop first a suspicion that they might be right and then an understanding that we missed a chance by not listening more carefully.    

I have also written, repeatedly some of you might say, of the extent to which we failed to grasp the importance of what Phil Capper wrote in 1986 and repeated in 1993. Twenty five years ago he said:

  • schools are not catering for the increasingly diverse range of needs the students bring with them into the secondary school;
  • the “standard menu” of offerings would no longer be adequate;
  • if we didn’t think about the nature of the senior secondary school, there was a danger that other providers would offer pathways that were more attractive and more appropriate;
  • we needed to rethink that whole notion of a “school” as having a protected space that gave secondary schools the “right” to claim a group of students of a certain age as “theirs”.

Now I have paraphrased some of this to express the points he made in the current way that these very same issues are being discussed. But in his own words he argued that “schools could respond more readily to what the community wants, especially in the upper secondary school. If schools do not respond to the opportunities and challenges implicit in this, then I believe that we will see a flight of post-compulsory students to other educational institutions and the reduction of all but the most academic schools to virtual junior high schools.” The title of his first paper said it all –“The Jagged Edge.

This still seems a little dramatic but is it a warning that remains unheeded? Is his later position one which can be ignored? He saw himself “questioning the continued validity of regarding the secondary service as a fixed and discrete entity.”

Phil Capper died last week. Education has lost a thinker who had the courage to raise issues which were uncomfortable to many. In the little area of his activity that I have noted, his thinking was much wider than just this but in the jagged edge material there is a feel of the clairvoyant. We could have saved ourselves and probably many, many students a whole lot of anguish if they had been not only taken notice of but also acted on back then. But perhaps we need these ice-breakers in education, people like Phil Capper, who can break through, who can start to mark a trail that we could follow with profit if only we trusted others insights.


Leave a Comment