Forget exams and league tables, writes Richard Dawkins. Real education, exemplified by a maverick headmaster almost 100 years ago, is about the power of knowledge and the thrill of discovery. Richard Dawkins Guardian Saturday July 6, 2002

My month has been dominated by education. Home life overshadowed by A-level examination horrors, I escaped to London to address a conference of schoolteachers. On the train, in preparation for the inaugural Oundle Lecture, which I was nervously to give at my old school the following week, I read HG Wells's biography of our famous head: The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, a plain account of the life and ideas of Sanderson.

The book begins in terms which initially seemed a little over the top: "I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy." But it led me on to read the official biography, Sanderson of Oundle, written by a large, anonymous syndicate of his former pupils (Sanderson believed in cooperation instead of striving for individual recognition). I now see what Wells meant. And I am sure that Frederick William Sanderson (1857-1922) would have been horrified to learn what I learned from the teachers I met at the London conference: about the stifling effects of exams, and the government obsession with measuring a school's performance by them. He would have been aghast at the anti-educational hoops that young people now have to jump through in order to get into university. He would have been openly contemptuous of the pussyfooting, lawyer-driven fastidiousness of Health and Safety, and the accountant-driven league-tables that dominate modern education and actively encourage schools to put their own interests before those of their pupils.

Quoting Bertrand Russell, he disliked competition and "possessiveness" as a motive for anything in education. Sanderson of Oundle in Northamptonshire ended up second only to Arnold of Rugby in fame, but Sanderson was not born to the world of public schools. Today, he would, I dare say, have headed a large, mixed comprehensive.

His humble origins – northern accent and lack of Holy Orders – gave him a rough ride with the Classical "dominies", whom he found on arrival at the small and run-down Oundle of 1892. So rebarbative were his first five years, Sanderson actually wrote out his letter of resignation. Fortunately, he never sent it. By the time of his death 30 years later, Oundle's numbers had increased from 100 to 500, it had become the foremost school for science and engineering in the country, and he was loved and respected by generations of grateful pupils and colleagues.

More important, Sanderson developed a philosophy of education which we should urgently heed today. He was said to lack fluency as a public speaker, but his sermons in the school chapel could achieve Churchillian heights: "Mighty men of science and mighty deeds. A Newton who binds the universe together in uniform law; Lagrange, Laplace, Leibnitz with their wondrous mathematical harmonies; Coulomb measuring out electricity… Faraday, Ohm, Ampère, Joule, Maxwell, Hertz, Röntgen; and in another branch of science, Cavendish, Davy, Dalton, Dewar; and in another, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Lister, Sir Ronald Ross. All these and many others, and some whose names have no memorial, form a great host of heroes, an army of soldiers – fit companions of those of whom the poets have sung…" How often did you hear that sort of thing in a religious service? Or this, his gentle indictment of mindless patriotism, delivered on Empire Day at the close of the first world war?

He went right through the Sermon on the Mount, concluding each Beatitude with a mocking, Rule Britannia: "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Rule Britannia! "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Rule Britannia! "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Rule Britannia! "Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness sake. Rule Britannia! "Dear souls! My dear souls! I wouldn't lead you astray for anything."

Sanderson's passionate desire to give the boys freedom to fulfil themselves would have thrown Health and Safety into a hissy fit, and set today's lawyers licking their chops with anticipation. He directed that the laboratories should be left unlocked at all times, so that boys could go in and work on their own research projects, even if unsupervised. The more dangerous chemicals were locked up, "but enough was left about to disturb the equanimity of other masters who had less faith than the head in that providence which looks after the young". The same open door policy applied to the school workshops, the finest in the country, filled with advanced machine tools which were Sanderson's pride and joy. Under these conditions, one boy damaged a "surface plate" (a precisely machined plane surface, used for judging the flatness of objects) by using it as an anvil against which to hammer a rivet. The culprit tells the story in Sanderson of Oundle: "That did disconcert the head for a little when it was discovered. But my punishment was quite Oundelian. I had to make a study of the manufacture and use of surface plates and bring a report and explain it all to him. And after that I found I had learnt to look twice at a fine piece of work before I used it ill."

Incidents like this led eventually, and not surprisingly, to the workshops and laboratories again being locked when there was no adult supervision. But some boys felt the deprivation keenly and, in true Sandersonian fashion, they set out, in the workshops and the library (another of Sanderson's personal prides) to make an intensive study of locks. One wrote: "In our enthusiasm we made skeleton keys for all Oundle, not only for the laboratories but for private rooms as well. For weeks we used the laboratories and workshops as we had grown accustomed to use them, but now with a keen care of the expensive apparatus and with precautions to leave nothing disorderly to betray our visits.

It seemed that the head saw nothing; he had a great gift for assuming blindness – until Speech Day came round, and then we were amazed to hear him, as he beamed upon the assembled parents, telling them the whole business, 'And what do you think my boys have been doing now?'" Sanderson's hatred of any locked door which might stand between a boy and some worthwhile enthusiasm symbolised his whole attitude to education. A certain boy was so keen on a project he was working on that he used to steal out of the dormitory at 2am to read in the (unlocked, of course) library. The Headmaster caught him there, and roared his terrible wrath for this breach of discipline (he had a famous temper and one of his maxims was, "Never punish except in anger"). Again, the boy himself tells the story. "The thunderstorm passed. 'And what are you reading, my boy, at this hour?' I told him of the work that had taken possession of me, work for which the daytime was all too full. Yes, yes, he understood that. He looked over the notes I had been taking and they set his mind going. He sat down beside me to read them. They dealt with the development of metallurgical processes, and he began to talk to me of discovery and the values of discovery, the incessant reaching out of men towards knowledge and power, the significance of this desire to know and make and what we in the school were doing in that process. We talked, he talked for nearly an hour in that still nocturnal room. It was one of the greatest, most formative hours in my life… 'Go back to bed, my boy. We must find some time for you in the day for this'."

That story brings me close to tears. Far from coveting garlands in league tables by indulging the high flyers, Sanderson's most strenuous labours were on behalf of the average, and specially the "dull" boys. He would never admit the word: if a boy was dull it was because he was being forced in the wrong direction, and he would make endless experiments to find how to get his interest… he knew every boy by name and had a complete mental picture of his ability and character. It was not enough that the majority should do well. "I never like to fail with a boy," he once said.

In spite of – perhaps because of – Sanderson's contempt for public examinations, Oundle did well in them. A faded, yellowing newspaper cutting dropped out of my secondhand copy of Wells's book: "In the higher certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge School examinations Oundle once again leads, having 76 successes. Shrewsbury and Marlborough tie for second place at 49 each."

Sanderson died in 1922, after struggling to finish a lecture to a gathering of scientists, at University College, London. The chairman, HG Wells himself, had just invited the first question from the floor when Sanderson dropped dead on the platform. The lecture had not been intended as a valediction, but the eye of sentiment can read the published text as Sanderson's educational testament, a summation of all he had learned in 30 years as a supremely successful and deeply loved headmaster.

My head ringing with the last words of this remarkable man, I closed the book and travelled on to University College, London, site of his swansong and my own modest speech to the conference of science teachers. My subject, under the chairmanship of an enlightened clergyman, was evolution and the recent outbreak of American-style Young Earth Creationism in Emmanuel College, Gateshead.

I offered an analogy which teachers might use to bring home to their pupils the true antiquity of the universe. If a history were written at a rate of one century per page, how thick would the book of the universe be? In the view of a Young Earth Creationist, the whole history of the universe, on this scale, would fit comfortably into a slender paperback. That would be the book of the head of science at Emmanuel, recently given a resounding vote of confidence by Ofsted, with the shameful connivance of the prime minister and the secretary of state for education. And the scientific answer to the question? To accommodate all the volumes of history on the same scale, you'd need a bookshelf 10-miles long.

That gives the order of magnitude of the yawning gap between true science on the one hand, and the teaching of the infamous Gateshead school on the other. This is not some disagreement of detail. It is the difference between a cheap paperback and a library of a million books. What would have offended Sanderson about the diet of falsehood now being fed to the unfortunate children of Gateshead is not just that it is false but that it is petty, small-minded, parochial, unimaginative, unpoetic and downright boring compared to the staggering, mind-expanding truth. Emmanuel College, Gateshead has been well named the Ultimate Faith School.

After lunching with the teachers, I was invited to join their afternoon deliberations. Almost all were deeply worried about the A-level syllabus and the destructive effects of exam pressure on true education. One after another, they came up to me and confided that, much as they would like to, they didn't dare to do justice to evolution in their classes. This was not because of intimidation by fundamentalist parents (which would have been the reason in parts of America) but simply because of the A-level syllabus. Evolution gets only a tiny mention, and then only at the end of the A-level course. This is preposterous for, as one of the teachers said to me, quoting the great Russian American biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (a devout Christian, like Sanderson), "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Without evolution, biology is a collection of miscellaneous facts.

Before they learn to think in an evolutionary way, the facts that the children learn will just be facts, with no binding thread to hold them together, nothing to make them memorable or coherent. With evolution, a great light breaks through into the deepest recesses, into every corner, of the science of life. You understand not only what is, but why. How can you possibly teach biology unless you begin with evolution? How, indeed, can you call yourself an educated person, if you know nothing of the Darwinian reason for your own existence? Yet, time and again, I heard the same story. Teachers had wanted to introduce their pupils to life's central theorem, only to be glottal-stopped dead in their tracks: "Is that on my syllabus? Will it come up in my exam?" Sadly, the teacher had to admit that the answer was no, and returned to the rote learning of disconnected facts as required for A-level success. Sanderson would have hit the roof: "I agree with Nietzsche that 'The secret of a joyful life is to live dangerously.'

A joyful life is an active life – it is not a dull, static state of so-called happiness. Full of the burning fire of enthusiasm, anarchic, revolutionary, energetic, daemonic, Dionysian, filled to overflowing with the terrific urge to create – such is the life of the man who risks safety and happiness for the sake of growth and happiness." His spirit lived on at Oundle. His immediate successor, Kenneth Fisher, was chairing a staff meeting when there was a timid knock on the door and a small boy came in: "Please, sir, there are black terns down by the river." "This can wait," said Fisher decisively to the assembled committee. He rose from the chair, seized his binoculars from the door and cycled off in the company of the small ornithologist, and – one can't help imagining – with the benign, ruddy-faced ghost of Sanderson beaming in their wake.

Now that's education – and to hell with your league table statistics, your fact-stuffed syllabuses and your endless roster of exams. That story of Fisher was told by my own inspiring zoology teacher, Ioan Thomas, who had applied for the job at Oundle specifically because he admired the long-dead Sanderson and wanted to teach in his tradition. Some 35 years after Sanderson's death, I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still fresh water. Mr Thomas asked one of us, "What animal eats Hydra?" The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, "What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?" And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. "Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?" Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word. "I don't know… (crescendo) I don't know… (molto crescendo). And I don't think Mr Coulson knows either. (Fortissimo) Mr Coulson! Mr Coulson!" He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague's lesson, bringing him into our room. "Mr Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?" Whether some wink passed between them I don't know, but Mr Coulson played his part well: he didn't know. Again, the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson.

What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture. Sanderson's tradition that the whole school, not just the choir, even the tone deaf, should rehearse and bellow a part in the annual oratorio, also survived him, and has been widely imitated by other schools. His most famous innovation, the Week in Workshops (a full week for every pupil in every term, with all other work suspended) has not survived, but it was still going during my time in the 50s. It was eventually killed by exam pressure – of course – but a wonderfully Sandersonian phoenix has risen from its ashes. The boys, and now girls I am delighted to say, work out of school hours to build sports cars (and off-road go-carts) to special Oundle designs. Each car is built by one pupil, with help of course, especially in advanced welding techniques.

When I visited Oundle last week, I met two overalled young people, a boy and a girl, who had recently left the school but had been welcomed back from their separate universities to finish their cars. More than 15 cars have been driven home by their proud creators during the past three years. So Mr Sanderson, dear soul, you have a stirring, a light breeze of immortality, in the only sense of immortality to which the man of reason can aspire. Now, let's whip up a gale of reform through the country, blow away the assessment-freaks with their never-ending cycle of demoralising, childhood-destroying examinations, and get back to true education.

Richard Dawkins FRS is Oxford's Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. His books include Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003