Matthew Scurfield I COULD BE ANYONE, all rights reserved.

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Matthew Scurfield I COULD BE ANYONE, all rights reserved.

Brigitte Mierau (SHM Foundation - Artist in residence) interviews Matthew Scurfield

The first step is to understand the visions and insights of the most important actors in this space, in particular how they characterise the nature of the disagreement and conflict in British society on the question of education. By interviewing a select but diverse group of individuals, I hope to gather a range of ideas, insights and visions of the future which, when woven together, might reveal some very surprising and exciting opportunities to create a better, fairer system for all.


In face-to-face interviews, I’m aiming to create a free-flowing conversation. However, these are the broad topics I want to address:

Matthew, Can you say a little bit about your current involvement and interest with the areas of education and learning?

After several decades, stumbling over the written word, bluffing the audition, tripping up on the iambic pentameter and messing with the director’s tune, I finally began to admit to a rampant inferiority complex. As far as I could gather, from consistent therapeutic sessions, these crippling feelings begun with a self-effacing pattern sown in from my beginnings at school. The idea that I should excel no matter what, was no doubt accentuated by measuring myself against the scholastic family and academic neighbourhood in which I grew up. The constant belief that I would remain as good for nothing, unless I scored that elusive goal, nearly saw I dead – plagued me for decades, until the penny dropped.

It was working with actors and directors who weren't ashamed to speak out about their difficulties at school that gave me the courage to look at my own. Dyslexia was as much use, to the so called ‘word blind’, as a can of beans in the world I grew up in, so I never considered it an option. While it remained hard not to associate the word with being thick and stupid, some of the younger actors I started working with wore their dyslexia with a pride that brought a certain style, an extra richness, to the way they worked. Was I really someone who’s brain was wired differently to the status quo?

When I was in my fiftieth year, after finishing a season at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, some three hundred and fifty five years after the puritans closed it down, I went to see a consultant and had myself tested for dyslexia.

Bingo! This was the first exam I’d ever passed with flying colours.

Owning the label put a lot of misunderstandings and general mess in my life into stark relief. In turn, this new found qualification pulled up a surge of interest for me in formal education, particularly the affect it has when you don’t slot easily into the system. I decided to waylay the acting bug and focus on writing a book about growing up in post war Cambridge, as an academic write-off, at the heart of a bohemian family of prominent engineers and academics. Draws up a dyslexic riddle – how can someone who is purportedly a literary imbecile speak with any kind of coherence, not to mention putting pen to a book? The challenge for this dyslexic, was to kick those voices of defeat out of the back yard. The discovery of computer speech recognition, when it was in its infancy in the 90s, was a huge breakthrough for me… Overnight, I could speak my thoughts and they would appear on a screen…this in turn, opened a door to learning (education) from the ground up – a work in progress – and the story continues…

In 2008, along with my wife Lena and the Maltese actress and TV producer Clare Agius, we adapted a play from my book. Much to my surprise, the reception of the play has opened up an exciting relationship with some of the more radical academics in Malta and in the UK.

In your opinion: What is the essential purpose of an educational system – formal and informal?

To settle us, make us feel calm and self-confident, so that learning, whether it be formally or informally, inside the classroom or out, continues as an exciting, challenging, activity fired up by a deep rooted interest in the work – a lesson we want and need to do – not because we are told to do.

Be it a complex mathematical equation, an intricate relationship with a work of art, or the relatively simple task of cooking an egg, the way of learning is, as it always has been, as natural to the human condition as any physical likeness between us. This is nothing altruistic or unique. Schooling is for life and goes on in spite of a dedicated building and the current curricular hearsay of policymakers and political think tanks.

As I see it, learning and education, being one and the same, happen for life – given love and support they grow, as we grow, spontaneously, naturally. Whether we are suckling our mother’s breast, planning a complex heist, baking a loaf of bread, or earning a shilling for the latest discovery in aerodynamics, education and learning happen, irrespective of the model and structured syllabus.

In having an appetite for a good meal, we are simply taken up with the pallet of flavours and indeed the ritual. And if we happen to be the cook, perhaps we will be thinking on how to refine the ingredients for the next round, researching weights and measures for the perfect taste, learning by trial and error, as we go along. As with an article, or a book that has grabbed our imagination, if we have no shame in asking what such and such a word means, the process of reading develops from within us spontaneously. Like a hobby, where we want/need to find out for ourselves, the learning process becomes unending and in many cases is a dedicated passion that will live out our life with us.

In a word, the formalities of going to school pale into insignificance when compared with the overall ambience of what education and learning means as a whole. I may not have understood the placing of grammar, how to cross a T, or spell and add up in the ‘normal’ purported sense, but I soaked up a great deal about misconduct, bad behaviour and the yearning for revenge – may have been a desperate plea for survival, yet no one could refute I was learning…

To summarise: we may have a certain way of choosing how we cook and flavour a meal, a word to choose when telling a story, colour to paint a picture, number to make a quantum leap and so on, but learning remains, as it always has been, an entirely natural, organic process – as long as we remain open, the education therein will continue to be rewarding us with new and undiscovered horizons until the day we die.

What would a great system look like for you?

As we have arms and legs, torso and skin, we have a brain. The fact that we are unable to use each and every cell of the brain by someone else’s ruling is beside the point. When our learning antenna is untainted we automatically develop a depth and greater desire for our subject.  If we have been relegated to a way of life with a criminal fraternity, for example, it doesn’t mean the antenna has stopped working – it may not be considered lawful, or politically correct, but we’re learning.

Perhaps schools will become like municipal drop in centres, where we can go to sharpen up our carpentry skills, hone the mathematics we may need for the bridge we’re building, where, like libraries, we can stay for a few minutes while we look something up, or the whole day to finish a PhD. But unlike libraries these learning centres could/would cover all grounds, from shipbuilding to Mayan history, from mothering to meditation and so on.

What currently blocks us getting there?

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize how my survival and any success I may have gained as an actor and writer has been wholly dependent on not closing down the essence and excitement for learning I had as a child. The strength, enthusiasm, the open minded lack of shame, in being able to ask for help is a priority here and therein lies the answer to this question. If I’m in a trustworthy place where the architecture and atmosphere is conducive to passion, and calming down, where you aren’t chastised, or judged for not knowing - where not being able to live up to your parent’s dreams won’t pull you up short and the fear of not passing this or that test doesn’t overrule the heart – if I’m not sitting in trepidation for some hypothetical future  – then I’m in clover and the lesson can begin.

Unless we are lucky enough to have an enlightened tutor and or loving supportive parents, whatever the results may be, good or bad, my argument is this: if the emotional centre of a child has been instilled with an intense fear of not making the grade, from the beginning, the formalities of education will invariably be informed by conflict and violence - and the means to learn and grow will become tired and closed down.

If formal education hits the right notes the classroom becomes a bonus and will teach us a great deal. However, for so many of us schooling is seen as a pointless pursuit, a place of painful extremes, often made worse if there is trouble at home.

When cudgelled into thinking we are worthless, before we’ve had a chance to find out who we are, any amount of altruistic sounding off will do nothing more than leave us with varying degrees of disrespect, bitterness and lack of self-worth.

If we are too afraid to play, heavily chastised for making mistakes, the outcome of the lesson will, at best, be about survival, difficult children, bad teachers and awful schools, not to mention the burden on society when the child in question becomes a grown person seeking revenge. And believe me, revenge from a childhood dominated by the principals of unending tactical fear, playground and classroom bullying, happens on a huge scale. The skills we learn through the formalities of schooling and at home, once they are on a roll, are very difficult to stop and in many case will be put to use in wholly negative ways.

Surely the aim of education has to be about trying to instil a path of love and compassion into our lives, lest we want to see the genocide of innocent children and their families, led to their deaths, in the next war or terrorist attack.

We only have to look into the past of dictators, like Hitler and Stalin, to witness extreme examples of educated revenge, born from a childhood of severe abuse and violent extremes.

Along with the loss of his siblings at a very young age, Joseph Stalin was conditioned by abject poverty, ill-health and a father who brutally abused his family in drunken rage. Although less impoverished, from all accounts Adolf Hitler’s childhood was also wracked with extremes - the loss of his siblings at a young age, a father who beat up and humiliated him on a daily basis.

With my well-meaning mother and father, and their Cambridge degrees, wondering why their son could have fallen so far behind, I left my secondary school  riding the back of academic failure, with its legacy of shame and fear. I look back now and see a path of challenges and stumbling blocks put there by grownups who, in their well-meaning way, needed to get me into the correct lane, so I could best serve a society as they believed it to be.

My formal schooling took place in the fifties and early sixties, at the height of the cold war, when same sex marriage was a civil felony, abortions were handled in the backstreet and racism was still seen by many as an accepted and unchangeable part of our society. Public and private schools were still run as if they were a by-product of the British Empire, on the principle that there were those who were seen as good with their hands and those who use their head – blue-collar workers and white-collar workers - those who would go to the front line and serve their country without question and those who stayed behind and ruled.

Apart from delinquency and drug taking, there wasn’t a slot for me and the like to fit into. If it hadn’t been for my parent’s keen interest in the arts I’m not sure how I’d have managed, if at all.

What enablers are already in place?

As in working with visionary theatre and film directors for example, the way in which they can entice an actor to play will ultimately be their greatest asset. Even with a so called Hollywood star on board, a great director will take an ensemble company, make them feel as one and as individuals at their most rewarded when working as a team.

Whether it be through a director, a teacher, our parents, or off our own back, the craving to go deeper into a subject will truly be infused when it comes from the seed of interest planted in the child’s heart. That deeply evocative feeling of being fully submerged in a book, for example, can only really come to the fore when we want to read, not because we are being told to – to be immersed in a story comes from intrigue, the excitement in finding out how the narrative will run, looking up a word, researching the sum of its parts and any grammatical leanings we don’t understand along the way, because we are hungry to know how the adventure will turn out.

Ideally the question asked here should really be about how we teach our teachers and policymakers the art of calming down and informing the student likewise. Of course it helps if there is a teacher on hand who is able to guide and encourage us, but the journey and passion for learning can only really begin, if we are calm enough to become integrated - deeply submerged in the lesson, excited by the subject.

What are the ideas we already know to work really well?

A sapling is just a small tree, not a concept or idea. If we observe the seedling of a tree carefully we see that everything is already in place - the trunk, the bark, the leaves, branches and so on. It’s relatively hard to kill off a mighty oak, for example and easy to crush and kill the sapling. No matter the type of tree, the sapling is what it is, just a smaller version of its elder counterpart and will grow up, strong and giving, if the husbandry is conducive. Like the tree, the antenna we use for learning are in place when we are born. Nurture the heart and the facilities, already in place, will simply work and very well.

What ideas do we know definitely do not work?

Most ideas and concepts of education are put in place by parents, teachers and policymakers who want to get children to a place where they need them to be.

When we have a blinkered, antiquated, system, saturated by apathy, there will inevitably be those who are stamped with a label failure and dismissed as unfavourable. Trapped in a spiral of despair, these rejects will very likely spend the rest of their lives torn apart by what they’ve been led to believe.  

What ideas have you heard/thought of that perhaps have not yet been tried (or tried properly)?

Only when we have confidence and a calmer mind-set do we really open up to the continuing magic of this world and the myriad lessons that it reaps. If we are fundamentally at peace with ourselves there is no need for cajoling, enticement, a passing or not passing of the latest test, we will simply want to go further into the challenges of the subject we’re getting to know.

What individuals, organisations etc. do you think hold opposing views to yours?

On first look this question could be seen as a negative and one that has been addressed already. Nevertheless, in context and on reflection it is significant and is perhaps the most difficult one to answer.

The lesson here is how we stand our ground, with no self-pity ruffling our feathers, and speak our truth in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

When we express our viewpoint, there will often be someone who stands in opposition, someone who holds a wholly different opinion and belief to us.

Many of us have had occasion to doubt our own reality, particularly if it’s being questioned by someone who we assume to be in authority. We can be looking at the same landscape, but perceive a totally different reality. We may have had the unfortunate experience of being in a car accident , for example, when the other party was irrefutably at fault. Having initially accepted total liability, the culprit begins to bend the truth of what happened and their story becomes more and more convincing, we start to question our own perception.  If we’re gullible, susceptible to doubt, we really begin to wonder if our side of the accident actually happened.  

When there are opposing forces in our life, especially if the opposition is tied to a misunderstanding that stems from a complex relationship, an opposing truth between members of a complex family for instance, our differences can trigger an explosive reaction. When we find out for the first time that someone we love is in opposition to a truth we hold as gospel, it’s like waking up from a dream - a reality check that brings into focus what our heart really means in in the eyes of those we thought we knew and trusted.

We assume children come to the fresh new canvas of school with a voice, that is, unless we believe children should be seen but not heard, or should not speak unless spoken to, as was common in times past. We now believe thankfully, as the law provides, that children are innocent until proven guilty. Yet the line in this reassuring testament, is so often fudged and ignored.

As children we walk hand in hand with our parents to the school gate, believing on that first day they are gods, our strength and the way. They whisper sweetly with a reassuring squeeze that all will be absolutely fine, encouraging us in the direction of a door we’ve never been through before, into a building we are unfamiliar with, to meet people we hardly know, if at all. ‘The teacher’s nice’ they say, ‘learning is fun and you will make new friends’. Our mum and dad mean everything to us. Holding them dear to our hearts, we let go, swallow any trepidation we might be struggling with, put our trust on the line and make one of the biggest and bravest moves we’ve ever encountered.

Most of us take that first tentative step toward the threshold of school with pride, love and in full support of our parent’s wishes, while others wrestle with doubt and frustration just about squeezing in on time without losing the score.

Some, however, kick and scream and try to stem the tide, only to be overruled. To them opposition comes in loud and clear, shining a light on their every move, until they have no space to breathe. They might become the child without a voice who does what they’re told and suffers the consequences. They have little choice but to go to the thin end of the wedge. From here they try to set out to prove their dignity, perhaps bluffing, bragging and bullying their way to the head of the queue, even though it hurts to push against the stream.

Others, branded by the lesson, sometimes seem withdrawn, unable to speak. They dream of being a superhero, always winning the race, swooping in from above the playground, saving their teachers and peers from the earthquake, or looming explosion. Later they might bring a hunting knife, occasionally even a gun to school, carefully hidden, so they can swagger with the mother-lode after hours, outside the gates. Occasionally they let their guard down, cry out from the dark, only to be lunged at by the next intruder.

To those of us who sit on the other side of the fence, we see these kids as a problem. To our mind, they’re scary, disrespectful and confrontational. They lie and cheat and if given leeway, hold the better part of the class back. Then there are  those who don’t say a word, we say they’re shy and should learn to assert themselves, again with the same view that time taken up on them is time wasted. Introvert or extrovert, we can’t allow them to take precious school hours away from our sons and daughters. If we cut to the chase, these kids are simply more trouble than they’re worth.  We oppose them.

Although compulsory education was put in place for the betterment of the people, it soon became an implement, to control an unprecedented workload, for manning factory floor and the pits - positrons supposedly suited to practicalities, leaving those who did better academically to handle the managerial, or administrative work.

From the ‘Forster Act of 1870’ through to the Education Act 1944, our present system of school is still beholden to a similar set of principles and rules, put in place for a bygone era – for a society driven by the wealth and needs of the agricultural and later by the industrial revolution - fuelled by the imperial needs of an empire that no longer exists.

Opposition comes in many forms.

The hardest challenges have resulted in the most interesting solutions.

From time immemorial, there have been examples of well-known scientists, artists, writers, theologians, mathematicians, poets, inventors and other public figures who, when expressing an opposing view, have been marginalized, even vilified, or put to death.

Using nonviolent civil disobedience and a thorough understanding of colonial law, Mahatma Gandhi brought the greatest empire the world has ever known to its knees, giving independence to India.

Through his astonishing solidarity and leadership, Martin Luther King used Gandhi’s principles of peaceful protest and nonviolence to bring about unprecedented changes, for oppressed people everywhere, against a massive backlash of unmitigated cruelty, segregation and discrimination.

At the height of his success as a playwright, long before gay rights loomed on our horizon, Oscar Wilde was labelled a social outcast and imprisoned for being unashamed and open in his relationships.

The renowned psychologist Alice Miller informed us of the devastating and dangerous repercussions that spring from childhood humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps across the face, betrayal, sexual exploitation, derision, neglect, physical and mental abuse, and how they are largely ignored in the world. Against a deluge of character defamation, most of which came from the pens of disenchanted colleagues, she spoke out for the child.

Looking into the realities of horrendous dictatorships, Zainab Salbi speaks from the horse’s mouth, when she informs us of regimes and countries that choose to turn a blind eye to the atrocities heaped upon women and children in today’s world.

With his sociological insights, Graham Hancock challenges the very notion of who and what we are, in the human and spiritual realms. Many prominent academics, threatened by his radical views, continue to try and close him down.


Benoit Mandelbrot is considered a visionary mathematician, who saw shapes and numbers in a visual context, at a time when mathematics was primarily thought of as a technical, linear subject - as a distinct outsider in his field, often ridiculed and ostracized, he eventually brought our attention to an entirely new way to see the natural world, through fractal geometry and the computer.

Albert Einstein was a nonconformist, who tore us apart with his cosmological theories and ground-breaking discoveries in physics. He openly declared that ‘it was a miracle that modern education hadn’t completely smothered the curiosity necessary for scientific study’. When thrust into the limelight of the world stage, instead of waxing lyrical about science, Einstein was often outspoken about his distrust for authority, showing instead a passion for human rights, speaking out against racism and campaigning for the disarmament of the atomic bomb.

John Lennon left school with no qualifications and damning school reports, deeming him to be nothing more than a buffoon and a trouble maker. If he hadn’t followed his appetite for American music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll, he surely would have become – as his school-makers believed him to be – a second rate citizen, with little or no prospects. When he befriended Paul McCartney, who by his own admission couldn’t read music, one of the most celebrated and wonderful collaborations of all time transposed to the jukebox.

If Elvis Aron Presley had fallen in line with his schooling, he too would have ended up as an impoverished Mr average, believing he had no aptitude for music.

With no formal education in legal affairs, Erin Brockovich pored over pages of medical records and legal briefs to help win a multimillion class-action lawsuit -the largest of its kind in U.S. history - against Pacific Gas and Electric Company - for the contamination of ground water in the small town of Hinkley in California.  ‘My high school teachers would not have believed I could have read all those briefs’, describing her learning differences. ‘Early on I was told I probably wouldn't make it through college. I knew I wasn't stupid, but I had great hardships in school.’

And the list goes on....

Hitting a brick wall may at times have seen them collapse in a heap of despair, but these outsiders, innovators and mavericks saw how essential it was/is to stand their ground in the face of some of the most hard-hitting and repressive opposition imaginable - in doing so many of them altered/alter the course of history. Some of these lifesavers taught themselves the law, until they knew it inside out, so as to bring about a change of heart, usually to a population that was thought to be irreproachable. Despite the odds stacked against them, they found strength in their conviction, oftentimes to the detriment of their own lives. Whichever way the law turns, the one thing these radicals have in common is the ability to evoke a vision, from within themselves and bring it to life, in all fields.

There is a widely accepted misconception that intuition and imaginative, creative, thinking will induce anarchy, or at best inform an outsiders perspective and therefore can only be acceptable within the arts. These movers and shakers show otherwise.

Taking encouragement from these game changers, and how their story pans out, makes me realise how important it is to look for clarity and calm within myself, particularly when I’m beholden to extreme indifference in others. Then I can turn a corner with my marbles intact, ready to embrace any fears and confusion that might come my way, with confidence, vigilance and with an open heart.

Be it in humanities, economics, science, or the arts, using our imagination and instinct are vital to the breakthroughs and discoveries of new horizons, in all subjects, for each and every one of us.

But what if I don’t make the grade?

When pounded by an incessant barrage of do’s and don’ts, there’s a danger I will remain stuck in that languid place, where everything’s an impossibility.

Another statistic on some anonymous map?

In matters of low self-esteem, the brain will often end up telling the body what it can’t do, and likewise the body can dictate to the brain the same – in either case, when the brain and body are in conflict, one seems in opposition with the other, which can, when out of control, reach unbearable and unsustainable proportions, triggering depression, suicide, delusional psychosis and so on.

The world falls apart as we do, it becomes a damaged place if we are damaged.

We project the disassociation we harbour within ourselves onto the planet, through thought patterns and stories that are directly tied in with our emotional catalogue.  

So before we start to look at who and what opposes us in the external world, it’s important to see how powerful the habits of a lifetime are, how easily we degrade and admonish ourselves, from the inside.

In brief, I believe that what we are talking about when we seriously consider opposition, is a need for a fundamental shift in how society perceives itself and its needs today. This is not simply a few fixes to some forms of opposition.

Thank you so, so much Matthew! I'm very grateful for all the work you've done. Brigitte Mierau SHM Foundation - Artist in residence


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