Ladies and Gentlemen. I am sorry to bring your conversations to an end but I am so pleased to be with you this evening at the start of the first Prince of Wales Education Summer School.
I am hesitant to say anything after the Any Questions session but am so pleased you have actually wanted to come to an event which is obviously something of an experiment and to give up three-and-a-half days of what I know are intensely busy and pressured lives!
So I shall wait with some anxiety to learn whether at the end of this weekend, you will have found the exercise at all worthwhile and intrigued to learn from Bernice McCabe whether it is at all valuable…
I think I should say at the outset that my whole aim is to facilitate, rather than to dictate. And I couldn’t possibly lecture you on the way you go about your profession, but like everyone – and every parent – I have long held my own particular views about the excellence achieved and the standards set by education as a whole in this country.
Therefore, at the risk of boring you to distraction, I thought I ought to give you a little of the background as to why I, of all people, should have organised a summer school for History and English teachers.
Now, I think, it goes back to when I was a teenager in the 1960s and remembered witnessing what I realise now was a kind of cultural revolution which swept out the poor old baby with the bath-water.
And I noticed that this process was particularly comprehensive in four specific aspects of life – in agriculture, architecture, medicine and education.
In all these disciplines, the relevance of anything that had gone before, that had been tried and tested and might conceivably be described as a “timeless principle”, was abandoned in an effort to cut all links with the past so that we could quite literally create a "brave new world" devoid of our “outmoded” tradition and the accumulated “detritus” of centuries.
As a result of all this, I happen to be concerned that there is a danger that we are creating a society in which children, wherever they come from, will have a diminishing chance to understand their place in history, the significance of the culture and ideas which they have inherited, the nature of their own identity, and the distinction between the good and the bad, the creative and the mediocre.
Now, for what it is worth – and to cut a long story short - you may perhaps have noticed that over the past 25 to 30 years, I have been consistently attempting to plead for a restoration of balance in these four areas of our existence; for bringing back the abandoned baby, but not necessarily the bath water, and for re-introducing that lost element of harmony between past and future which I think is the here and now – we can only live in the here and now. (As T. S. Eliot put it so exquisitely “Here in the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere. Never and always.”)
So, in the field of education it seemed to me a particular tragedy that the crucial, shared link between generations – that "dialogue" which permits some kind of national, cultural and spiritual identity and an understanding of the values which underpin our pattern of liberal democracy – should be somewhat ruptured.
My first foray into what I soon discovered was rather a bloody battlefield was almost 10 years ago when I launched a Shakespeare Summer School for English and drama teachers at Stratford which has been running ever since, I’m glad to say, with the help of the Royal Shakespeare Company, of which I am enormously proud to be President.
The success of this venture, together with the fact that when talking to a wide cross-section of teachers over the years I have found that many of my concerns tend also to concern them, convinced me that it might be worth bringing together a few teachers who were interested in looking at some of the issues which possibly determine the quality and context of education offered to many of our young people.
What then are the kind of issues I am talking about and which Bernice McCabe and her colleagues have so kindly come together to help us address in this summer school?
I should say to begin with that, while I feel there is a crying need to offer many young people the chance to use their hands in practical ways, to develop vocational skills such as carpentry and plumbing and thereby to gain much more satisfaction and fulfilment, my concern this evening - and I think yours at this summer school - is chiefly with the "intellectual" education debate.
From this point of view, it seems to me that many of those who leave school with good qualifications nevertheless have an education which is somewhat shallow-rooted; they lack valuable and essential knowledge, and understanding, about their national history and heritage. And, as a result, they find themselves devoid of that all important anchor when buffeted by the storms of life.
Now, this is not because of the lack of excellent teachers, but often – perhaps – because of the constraints of the curriculum.
As Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve observed in this year’s Reith Lectures: “If a certain A-level board offers easier examinations in a subject, schools have reason to choose that syllabus even if it is educationally inferior. Perverse incentives become real incentives. The Sisyphean task of pushing institutional performance up the league tables is made harder by constantly redefining and adding targets and introducing initiatives.”
So this summer school, therefore, is intended to inspire all of you, I hope, as teachers of English and history who do value our culture - notwithstanding all the difficulties, pressures and limitations with which you have to contend - further to enrich your teaching despite the unavoidably narrow straitjacket of the examination system.
It is only too obvious I am a mere amateur with no intention whatsoever of teaching various grandmothers to suck eggs, it seems to me that education should also be about preparing our young people to assume their responsibilities as future citizens, giving them an understanding of the spiritual dimensions of their lives and giving them access to the best aspects of their culture or - to put it another way - there is, I think, a growing feeling that children are not being encouraged in the appetite for knowledge which will stand them in good stead for the future.
The two aspects of this culture, or knowledge, on which you are going to concentrate this weekend are, of course, English and History.
It is a remarkable fact that in these islands we have produced what is now the world’s most successful language; successful in that it has become the world’s international language of communication.
How could anyone, for instance, navigate themselves around the internet, let alone fly an aeroplane without the command of English? But, for us, it is not just an international language but a national language. If the language is not expressive, fulfilling and creative, as well as accurate and communicative, we are impoverished as human beings and our language will not clothe our thoughts adequately.
This is all the more true because there are now many British children whose mother tongue is not English. We will surely be missing an opportunity if we do not treat the learning of an exact, expressive and, indeed, literary English as a task common to all pupils, native speakers and others alike.
For it seems to me that language and literature are a common inheritance, not the private property of the privileged. Access to them is the right of every citizen which it is the duty of a civilised society to safeguard. At this point it is perhaps worth recalling what George Orwell pointed out in Nineteen Eighty-Four “That the best way of getting rid of history and thought is to get rid of the language of history and ideas”. So he invented “Newspeak” for his nightmare world.
I don’t think I am now entirely alone in feeling that the baby was rather too energetically thrown out with the bath water and that something has gone a little bit wrong.
This summer school is, I suppose, designed to re-examine the baby.
I wonder if part of what may have gone wrong is that we have moved away from the idea of English as something really to be learned, by effort and by application, and by long and careful familiarity with those who have shown how to clothe their thought in the most precise, vivid and memorable language? (I must tell you at this point that, personally, I remain forever indebted to a remarkable teacher I had who, unfashionable as it may seem now, literally drilled us in the ground-rules and discipline (yes, discipline!) of grammar which, in later life, have proved so valuable and liberating.)
An inability to express oneself can cause not only practical difficulty, but often leads to an "aridness of spirit". Banality is for nobody. It might be accessible to all, but so is a desert.
Furthermore, our economic environment requires clarity in expression and precision in meaning. If we are unable to communicate effectively with one another then we create confusion and lose our way.
Similarly, with literature, it seems to me that the ancient should be read with the modern.
I am one of those people who was lucky enough to have known Ted Hughes, for instance, and I very much admire his poetry, but that does not mean that I would therefore never want to read Wordsworth or Milton, any more than my pleasure in the language and wit of Tom Stoppard – to give one notable example from among us this evening – means that I no longer have a need of Shakespeare. Literature speaks to people’s highest aspirations.
You know better than I do that the current literary scene in England is flourishing, adding to our extraordinary canon of literature.
But it would appear that despite our ambitions growing, there is a focus on contemporary writing to the exclusion of the past.
Can you imagine the Germans, the French, or the Russians ignoring their own great literary heritage as it seems sadly and inexplicably all too fashionable to do here?
In literature as in language, I would suggest that there are terrible dangers in following fashionable trends in education – toward the relevant, the exclusively contemporary, the immediately palatable.
What is palatable is taught because it is the most accessible, but it may not be the most useful or, in a deeper sense, relevant.
We shrink perhaps sometimes from giving young people the richness of a tradition which has undoubtedly privileged some over others in the past. But it doesn’t have to: the answer is it seems to me to give them the skills which allow them to own their tradition themselves, whatever their background, not to deprive all equally.
Above all, we should be talking about excellence not elitism. Perhaps we should be talking about inspiration too.
At this point, let me hasten to say that I do not for a moment envy the task which many of you face in your classrooms.
I realise you have huge practical problems and you must certainly know better than I do how they can be solved and, if not solved, then circumvented. Moreover, I do know only too well that there are pressures to teach your pupils what is thought “relevant”.
With regard to history, I believe that the past does matter and that history is not bunk; we are not necessarily the most sophisticated, the cleverest or wisest people humanity has ever known.
It is the very fact of the speed of our progress that makes history so crucial to our understanding of who we actually are.
History is not simply about the impact past events have on our present experience, but about how generations consider, reflect and move on in the shadow, or rather in the light, of what has gone before.
A country which has evolved and has confidence in the present and the future, must surely be at ease with its history, even those parts which it would now change were the opportunity there to do so.
If we ignore history and turn our backs, we leave it in the hands of vested interests. People who believe history is for others will have their history determined by others, just as people who believe language belongs to others will have their language determined by others.
But all is not lost. As we have discovered this evening, the ratings for "history shows" on television and radio, hosted by historians such as David Starkey and Simon Schama – both of whom have so generously agreed to take part in this summer school and heckled so furiously during the Any Question session – demonstrate that people continue to have the appetite for such intriguing accounts of our past.
Cicero commented that “to remain ignorant of what happened before you, is to remain a child”. Or perhaps you could say to remain an adolescent – with adolescent views and behaviour.
Now I need hardly say, I believe there is still a need for the firm, the familiar and the unchanging in a turbulent and changing world where so many of the fixed points of our lives can no longer be taken for granted, so that in the words of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, which we are lucky enough still to understand: “Among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found”.
In a world where the trite, the banal, the cliché and the commonplace are so dominant a part of our lives, we need ever more to cherish, and to preserve and celebrate the beauty, the solemnity and the harmony we inherit from the past.
And there is, after all, so much in this country of which we should be proud.
There is nothing wrong with proper pride. I also think that an appropriate awareness of history is a vital part of the unique – and I hardly dare say this – "organic" (as opposed to ‘genetically modified’) constitutional system in this country.
Symbolic events, such as the State Opening of Parliament, for instance, express our essential connections to who we are and the country we live in. We should be poorer without them I think – and the chances are we would only realise this after it was too late…
The death and funeral of my beloved Grandmother seemed suddenly to open up a box marked "history", which had been firmly shut and locked away in the national attic for 30 or 40 years, covered in dust - so that younger people were astonished to discover what there was to be proud of in this country.
The actual funeral itself brought home to people, through its pageantry and symbolism, just what an ancient and significant history the United Kingdom has, and just how rooted we are as a nation in the symbols and institutions which stretch back into our past.
It is surely in understanding the symbols, those outward signs of inner things, that we are able to take ownership of them and allow them to have meaning in our lives. It is not that we have to agree with the symbols, but we must be able to understand what they mean and we must be able to engage with them.
So ladies and gentlemen, in concluding, I believe this summer school has come at just the right time.
Over recent years, our young people have faced more frequent examinations and perhaps, as an unintended consequence, their time for learning has shrunk; it seems to me that this heads us towards what could be called "defensive teaching".
We have to be ambitious in what we want to show young people they can do if we want them to be ambitious in turn: ambitious to understand, to read, to speak, to create, to use their collective inheritance to feed and articulate their individual wants and needs. The consequence of not doing so is that we end up with an entire generation of culturally disinherited young people.
So to feed and articulate your individual wants and needs, I thought you might appreciate hearing from the distinguished guest speakers whom I have asked to speak to you from their own particular experience and perspective.
Needless to say, I am hugely indebted to them for so generously giving up their incredibly precious time to be with us – as I am to Bernice McCabe and all her colleagues on the steering board.
And ladies and gentlemen, I am even more grateful to you, the poor, harassed teachers, for giving up your precious time to risk associating yourself and your reputation with dangerous radicals like me!"