Alex Bloom: Introduction and Part 1

01 May 2013
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Alex Bloom

Alex Bloom: Introduction and Part 1 Freedom From Michael Fielding

Extracts from a draft chapter for a forthcoming book, Education, Childhood and Anarchism: Talking Colin Ward, edited by Catherine Burke and Ken Jones, to be published by Routledge on October 31st this year.


For those of us paradoxically, and some would argue, hopelessly committed to the wisdom, joy and uneven practicability of communitarian traditions of anarchism to publicly funded/state education, Colin Ward's obituary for Alex Bloom has some reassuring remarks to sustain us against the odds.

In the work of bringing freedom to education the work of the independent pioneers like A.S. Neill is of great value as a pilot-light and an inspiration, but the most important thing is to get their ideas accepted in the ordinary primary and secondary schools which the overwhelming majority of us attend. This is the challenge nobly accepted by people like Mr Teddy O'Neil at Prestolee, Mr A.L.Stone in Birmingham, and by Alex Bloom in Stepney (all three of them, be it noted, it working class slum schools in 'tough' areas). (Ward 1955)

Echoing Ward's insistence on the need to disrupt and transform dominant practices by 'bringing freedom' to ordinary schools Martin Small, another anarchist admirer of Bloom's work, argues that 'The school as an experimental and continually reorganized order of relationships is possible, even within the system which demands results in the shape of measurable academic achievement' (Small 1968, 293). Indeed, to those who carp from the sidelines or await, if not the millennium then more obviously propitious times than the present, he pointedly asks, 'If not here, where? And if not now, when?' (Ibid)

Who, then, was Alex Bloom? Why should Colin Ward have written his obituary in Freedom, and mentioned him honourably in The Child in the City (Ward 1990, ix) and Talking Schools (Ward 1995)? What earned Bloom his place amongst the pioneers of radical democratic publicly funded education? What was it about his work at St George-in-the-East Secondary School in Stepney in the East End of London that accounted for the fact that his was the only state secondary school to be visited and admired by A.S. Neill (Anon 1954, Croall 1983), and that his name is one of only a small number of innovators within the state system invoked by twentieth century anarchist educational writers and practitioners such as Leila Berg (Berg1971), Tony Gibson (Gibson 1951), John Shotton (Shotton1993), and Martin Small (Small 1968) and by left-wing progressives such as James Hemming (Hemming 1948) and Nigel Wright (Wright1989)?

A fully developed response to these questions would require a book-length study. Not least of its tasks would be to attempt to uncover the apparent riddle of what his Times obituary writer - the redoubtable Peggy Volkov - described as a change from 'many years of quite orthodox schoolmastering' to the development of a 'great educational experiment' (Anon 1955) of international renown. How was it that 'quite orthodox schoolmastering' gave way to work of such innovative power and inspirational reach that Dr Gertrude Panzer, a concentration camp escapee and one of the key figures in the educational reconstruction of post-war Germany, insisted that 'If I could have in Berlin three schools like St. George-in-the-East, Stepney, I could revolutionise the education of this city' (Birley 1978, 63)? How was it that in less than two-and-a-half years Bloom was able to achieve what HM Inspectors described in their 1948 report as 'a vision of what the new form of Secondary School can be' (Ministry of Education 1948,11).

What I hope will serve as a preface to such an endeavour - and link with this volume's celebration of Colin Ward's contribution to the theory and practice of anarchist education - are a number preliminary of reflections on some of the ways in which Bloom's newly opened secondary modern school in old buildings in a very poor, bomb-cratered part of the East End of London, achieved its proclaimed aspirations as 'A consciously democratic community … without regimentation, without corporal punishment, without competition' (Bloom 1948: 121).

I come at this task by offering a three-facetted lens through which to view his contribution to an educational approach many anarchists would find deeply sympathetic to their own traditions and aspirations. The lens itself is that most cherished of anarchist values and orientations, freedom or liberty.

The first aspect of its three mutually reinforcing dimensions is negative liberty - freedom from impediments and obstacles that undermine human flourishing. Its second aspect is positive liberty - freedom to explore and create in ways that are humanly fulfilling.

To these two familiar characterisations I add a third that provides that essential unifying imperative grounding both negative and positive liberty in the felt realities of human encounter. More difficult to name or explore with the same conviction as its more familiar counterparts, is the much neglected, persistently elusive notion of fraternity, or as English political traditions of radical democracy and communitarian anarchism often called it, fellowship (see McCulloch 1984). Insistently bringing us back to the interpersonally situated nature of freedom and the range and nature of the reciprocal demands on all those who would be party to its multiple changing realities, it is a notion that deserves sympathetic re-examination and creative renewal. Liberty without equality denies the universal nature of our desires and entitlements as agents of our own and each other's future. Equality without liberty too readily curtails the distinctiveness and restless adventure of persons and purposes. Liberty and equality without fellowship succumb too readily and too often to the reductive rigours of abstraction; to what, in extremis and too often, turns out to be, in E.P.Thompson's terrifying phrase, 'the gibbet of the intellect'.

My argument is, neither for the logical necessity of interconnection between negative and positive freedom, nor for a Kropotkinesque anthropological necessity (see Ward 1995, 44-45) . Rather it is for democratic fellowship as a centripetal existential energy uniting and legitimating both positive and negative freedoms in and through a shared humanity. (see Figure 1 below). Together and interdependently they provide what the great Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, called the 'conditions of freedom' (Macmurray 1950).

Figure 1: Three concepts of liberty
Michael Fielding’s matrix

This article begins a description of the culmination of Bloom's life's work in his development of St George-in-the-East in Stepney from 1945-55, and demonstrates both the practical possibility and the deep desirability of 'the school as an experimental and continually reorganized order of relationships' (Small 1968, 293) devoted to a view of human flourishing which had much in common with communitarian traditions of anarchism.
The first element in this achievement is negative liberty - no punishment, no prizes, no poverty of expectation.

Bloom's rejection of, not just corporal punishment, but, as we shall see in a moment, any form of punishment at all; his rejection of competition and its attendant paraphernalia of prizes and extrinsic rewards; and his refusal to stream, set or otherwise label children in ways which would invariably close down, rather than open up possibility, together provide a rich and varied set of counter-cultural practices and aspirations which still have the power to inspire over half a century later.

No punishment

Of these, arguably it was Bloom's rejection of corporal punishment that, depending on one's point of view, gained St George's most notoriety or admiring support within London County Council (LCC). What is less well known is that, at a time when corporal punishment was very common indeed in both primary and secondary schools, not only did Bloom forbid caning and any other form of physical punishment, he effectively dispensed with punishment altogether. Explaining the realities of the St. George's approach to a reporter from the Times Educational Supplement he affirms that 'Our only form of punishment, if punishment it can be called, is a request to the child to leave the group.' Anticipating puzzlement about what then transpires, he goes on to say,

'We find they don't leave the school premises. After wandering about the playground or sitting by the hall fire for a bit, they are asked to rejoin the group and generally do. In the case of persistent anti-social behaviour our first step is to make contact with the parents to try to find out the reason '(Anon 1951b).

The school thus ran on the basis of dialogic engagement and communal restitution, rather than the physical and psychological violence condoned and invariably expected of schools and schoolteachers at that time. Tony Gibson's amusingly intemperate assertions that 'the average headmaster is a crabbed, child-fearing and child-hating individual, who owes his position to his qualities as an administrator and disciplinarian' (Gibson 1955, 17) might well be an exaggeration, but it was close enough to shared perceptions of headmasterly practice to warrant citation and for Bloom to thus be classed as  'a rare exception' (Ibid).

Bloom's highly unusual attitude to anti-social behaviour and to the wisdom or otherwise of punishment have much within them that anarchists would applaud and seek to emulate. For Bloom, at the root of much bad education, in both its broad and narrow senses, is the utilisation of fear, either as a motivating device for good behaviour or as a deterrence for its opposite. In his view 'fear enslaves and inhibits (Bloom 1952,136) and only produces superficial and thus conditional conformity to the regime that utilises it. Arguing strongly that 'Those fears … must be removed that have been considered in varying degrees, essential incentives to "progress"' he cites 'fear of authority … imposed for disciplinary purposes' (Ibid) as the first source of fear that needs to be eradicated. It is, in any case both pragmatically 'ineffective' (Ibid, 138) and morally offensive on a number of grounds. Firstly, 'discipline through fear destroys the personality, whereas education implies growth … of the whole personality.' (Ibid, 138-9). Secondly, 'punishment - of  whatever nature - may aggravate the ill' (Ibid, 139). The key is to attend and respond to causes: 'Remember, you do not punish a child for coming out in spots; you procure for him medicine that will treat the cause' (Ibid).

No competition

If rejection of corporal punishment brought Bloom local notoriety, it was his principled and profound rejection of any form of competition that brought him national and international recognition. A long-standing opponent of what he sometimes called the 'fetish' of competition (Bloom 1941), the sophistication of his arguments and the conviction with which they were articulated were deepened and extended in the second of his main articles for New Era - 'Compete or Co-operate?' (Bloom 1949) and, 2 years later, his resolute denial of the moral, existential and cognitive legitimacy of competition came to national prominence through a lead article and a companion account of the work at St. George-in-the-East that appeared in the Times Educational Supplement on July 27th 1951.

Although not agreeing with the lengths to which Bloom took his concerns about the pernicious effects of competition the leader was not altogether hostile. Certainly, it pilloried the excesses of competition that were widespread enough to merit comment.

In terms still distressingly familiar to today's presumptions and practices, it transpires that

There has been a tendency to fall back on competition as the only incentive for dong anything well, giving a ludicrous order to school life: marks for every lesson, constant tests and examinations and revisions of class order, prizes for the cleanest hands, 'ladders' for spelling, marks for table manners, and sashes for deportment (Anon 1951a).

In fact, the article to which the leader responded - 'St. George-in-the-East: Modern School in Action' (Anon 1951b) - only has a small passage on the rejection of competition stating that

Competition is out. No individual prizes for work, conduct or sport distract the constant aim of doing a thing for its own sake, trying to beat, not other people's standards but one's own, producing one's best not to shine above the rest but with the maturer pleasure of co-operative achievement. (Ibid)  

However, the values and standpoints that underpin that anti-competitive, pro-co-operative stance infuse the whole article and it is these core beliefs and commitments that animated Bloom's long letter of response in the subsequent week's edition of the paper. Having acknowledged the leader's 'gracious tribute to us as a 'school of quality' he goes on to remind readers of the broader context of social and educational failure that the new tripartite system of schooling inevitably imposed on the vast majority of children who walked through the gates of the school.

Let me assure you, first, that our purpose in removing the normal incentives to effort is not to hide from the child his weaknesses. So many children enter the secondary modern school trailing dark clouds of failure. These mists and the inhibiting effect of the fear of failure have to be dispelled. The positive compulsions of streaming, marks, prizes, competition and the negative compulsion of imposed punishment - the teacher's 'artful aids' - these cannot help to restore the child's self-esteem. By removing them we enable and encourage him to adventure, and if he fails he fails with impunity … and with a smile, but with every social inducement to improve his skills. … Collaboration with and competition against are mutually exclusive concepts. Competition and rivalry impede the free flow of friendly communication and stunt the growth of group consciousness and co-operation. We have therefore discarded them.

(Bloom 1951)

No prizes

One consequence of this uncompromising stand against competition and fulsome embrace of co-operation was the rejection of prizes 'for work, conduct or sport'. Of particular interest was not only the creative nature of St George's participation in local sports fixtures in which they requested that 'results should not be included in the area league' (Anon 1951b); 'Thus, in common parlance, all our matches - and our matches, alone - are called "friendly" matches.' (Bloom 1951). It was also Alex Bloom's use of money allocated by LCC for schools' annual prize-giving to establish exemplary alternative practices that placed the joy of achievement within a communal frame of reference. Invariably the school would itself decide through its highly sophisticated student voice structures what the LCC money should be spent on and accordingly award itself the prize. One of the most celebrated occasions entailed the presence of an illustrious visitor to present the Annual School 'Prize'. As reported in the East London Advertiser of 23rd July, 1954, there was only one prize, 'A large pile of books to be used by the whole school.' (Anon 1954, 14) presented by none other than A.S.Neill, who 'said he didn't believe in individual prizes, rather a communal prize. "Nobody does anything important for a prize. I absolutely agree this method of dividing up the prize between a community is an excellent one"'(Ibid).

No streaming

Underpinning each of these affirmations of negative liberty was a view of human flourishing that took seriously what I have elsewhere called 'the insistent affirmation of possibility' (Fielding and Moss 2011), a view which insists we open up opportunity in significant part by refusing to adversely label, grade, pigeon-hole or circumscribe persons in the ubiquitous, often subtle, ways to which most societies in the world have become so distressingly accustomed.

Of course, as Bloom's earlier tirades against the hypocrisy and self-delusion of so-called 'equality of opportunity' remind us, much more is needed than absence of demeaning or diminishing categorisation. The basic conditions of living a full and meaningful life and the interpersonal attitudes which affirm and insist on their generous reality must also be nourished in a foundational, uncompromising way and I shall pursue some of these in more detail in my article on the third concept, which is liberty i.e. democratic fellowship. It is nonetheless worth noting in passing here that, as one would expect of Bloom, the Times Educational Supplement article pointed out that at St. George-in-the-East 'the children are unstreamed, each year consisting of two forms, "A" and "Alpha"' (Anon 1951b).

(Alex Bloom Part 2, Freedom to, and Alex Bloom, Part 3, Freedom in Community, will appear in subsequent postings.)



Anon (1951)(a) Competition [Editorial Leader] Times Educational Supplement 27 July, 605

Anon (1951)(b) St. George-in-the-East: Modern School in Action Times Educational Supplement 27 July, 605

Anon (1954) They All Share the School Prizes East London Advertiser Friday July 23, 14,15

Anon (1955) 'Obituary: Mr A.A. Bloom' Times 24th September, 9

Berg, L. (1971) Moving Towards Self-Government in Paul Adams, Leila Berg, Nan Berger, Michael Duane, A.S.Neill and Robert Ollendorff Children's Rights: Toward the Liberation of the Child London, Elek, 9-53 *

Birley, R. (1978) British Policy in Retrospect, in A. Hearnden (ed) The British in Germany: Educational Reconstruction after 1945 London, Hamish Hamilton, 47-63

Bloom, A. (1941) Equality of Opportunity - for What? London Head Teachers' Association Bulletin No.16, November, 130,132

Bloom, A. (1948) Notes on a School Community New Era 29 (6), 120-121

Bloom, A. (1949) Compete or Co-operate? New Era 30 (8), 170-172

Bloom, A. (1951) Competition in Schools Times Educational Supplement 3 August, 621

Bloom, A. (1952) Learning Through Living, in M. Alderton Pink (ed) Moral Foundations of Citizenship London, London University Press, 135-143

Croall, J. (1983) Neill of Summerhill: The Permanent Rebel London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Fielding, M. and Moss, P. (2011) Radical Education and the Common School: a democratic alternative Abingdon, Routledge

Gibson, T. (1951) Youth For Freedom London, Freedom Press *

Hemming, J. (1948) Standards of Social Health in the School Community New Era 29 (6), June, 121-127 *

Macmurray, J. (1950) Conditions of Freedom London, Faber

McCulloch, C. (1984) The Problem of Fellowship in Communitarian Theory: William Morris and Peter Kropotkin Political Studies 32 (3), 437-450

Ministry of Education (1948) Report by H.M. Inspectors on St. George-in-the East County Secondary School, Stepney, London; Inspected 25th-27th February, 1948 London, Ministry of Education

Shotton, J. (1993) No Master High or Low: Libertarian Education and Schooling in Britain, 1890-1990 Bristol, Libertarian Education *

Small, M. (1968) About Risinghill; Anarchy 92 (Vol 8 No 10) October, 289-306 *

Ward, C. (1955) Alex Bloom: a teacher of freedom Freedom 1st October, 14 *

Ward, C. (1990) The Child in the City London, Bedford Square Press *

Ward, C. (1995) Talking Schools London, Freedom Press *

Wright, N. (1989) Assessing Radical Education: A Critical Review of the Radical Movement in English Schooling 1960-1980 Milton Keynes, Open University Press *

Extracts from a draft chapter for a forthcoming book, Education, Childhood and Anarchism: Talking Colin Ward, edited by Catherine Burke and Ken Jones, to be published by Routledge on October 31st this year.

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