I'm so glad to be again at Dartington Hall. I can't thank Bernice enough for her wonderful and incredibly helpful effort in ensuring all this happens. We're so lucky to have her still after 4 years. Personally I owe her a huge debt of gratitude and the steering committee and all the others who make it all happen. The thing I'm most anxious about this time, having gone round and met you all and slowly begun to understand what the coloured dots mean, I then realised of course that I'd met most of you before and now you're going to have to stand through another of these interminable diatribes… It's rather like the Bishop I met on Sunday after the Service who was doing four Services that day but I discovered he was using the same Sermon. Who knows, but this time round you might find a few slightly different things.
I am so pleased to be able to welcome you back to Dartington and to the fourth of my Education Summer Schools for teachers of English and History. And of course I think most of you now know that I started these annual Schools here, at Dartington, four years ago - and amazingly we've been able to keep going - therefore it is particularly pleasing that we have been able to return this year. Since then we have held schools at Dunston Hall in Norfolk and last year at Buxton in Derbyshire.
And of course each one has - according to the detailed feedback returned by the course participants - been challenging, has inspired fresh enthusiasm for subjects, has provoked a re-examination of classroom practice and, I am pleased to report, has produced some very warm responses from the professional individuals and organizations charged with delivering teacher training.
Now, I said when I started this process, perhaps rather rashly 4 years ago, that I was particularly interested in creating some kind of teacher training institute, or at least an organization which would help to fill the gap which many in the field of Education believe has existed for too long. This “cunning plan” envisaged the delivery of professional teaching career development which would:
- First of all, underpin some of the timeless principles which form the bedrock of teaching;
- Secondly, re-inspire teachers in their chosen subjects;
- And thirdly, help to strengthen the essence of good classroom practice - that is, knowledge taught well by expert and enthusiastic teachers.
It seemed to me then - and I still hold closely to this belief - that we desperately needed to harmonize rather than to homogenize and to lend proper recognition to the delicate threads of history and story-telling which link generations and which permeate the great traditions of English and History teaching. Perhaps, most of all, I am even more convinced it is absolutely vital that through our schools we are able to continue to impart substantial bodies of knowledge to the next generation, even though pupils may not necessarily yet be able to appreciate or understand the need for such depth and breadth. I didn't always understand it at school but I do now. This is the crux of the problem I think. But those of us who are now older and were lucky enough to have a body of knowledge imparted to us should realize that, at the end of the day, we would be selling our young people short if we allowed short term, fashionable approaches to become excessively dominant. Not only that, but we would undermine the foundations of civilized existence if we lost the balance between “relevance”, on the one hand, and a shared cultural heritage based on the transmission of a body of knowledge, on the other.
It is in this context and against that background that we intend - soon I hope - to make some announcements about a permanent set of arrangements which will secure the long term future of the Summer Schools. I also hope that it will be possible to detail other developments in support of an expansion of the programme to date. In this regard, I did just want to refer to the fact that a great deal of work has gone into future planning based on the extraordinary response to these Schools from the people who matter most – the teachers. We are very close to establishing an alumni association for teachers who have attended the Summer Schools and who have said that they are extremely keen to keep in touch and to develop supportive relationships across the country. Funnily enough, we have had the most interest from Cornwall. Perhaps it's out of loyalty to their decrepit old Duke. I am therefore particularly anxious that we respond positively to the requests made in the course evaluations for alumni gatherings and for a permanent home for my Schools…..
Ladies and Gentlemen, I make no apologies for striking a positive and, I hope, an uplifting note. It is all too easy to point to what is wrong, or what does not work well or where problems will arise if this or that action is undertaken. That said, I am very aware of the enormous challenges and difficulties that teachers face in their daily job……
I know from the large postbag that I receive, and from my conversations and meetings around the country, that a great deal of wonderful work is achieved in schools, often under the most demanding and difficult of circumstances. I am keenly aware of the daily hurdles that so many teachers have to surmount before they can even begin to capture the attention of some pupils, let alone to teach in a structured, coherent and meaningful way. I heard a little bit about this while talking to you all just now. And yet it is happening, thank goodness - there are daily miracles taking place in classrooms up and down the land as young people have their eyes opened, their minds stimulated and broadened, and as they become alive to the unbelievable wealth of knowledge that should be available to all, regardless of ability to pay for it, background or circumstances.
Well, I am most certainly not here to tell you how to do your job as teachers, nor would I dream of doing so! Instead, let me tell you that I was desperately keen to bring together the various guest speakers and participants in order that they should convey to you in their distinctive ways the vital importance of coherent, chronological story-telling in the teaching of History and the power of narrative in the teaching of English. They all, I believe, share with me a fundamental commitment to such teaching, and I am immensely grateful to them for agreeing to take part in the School.
This year's School should, like its predecessors, give you as teachers the opportunity to grab a moment away from the pressures of the timetable so that you can reflect on the nature of these vitally important subjects and the contribution they make to a child's intellectual and emotional development.
You will also note perhaps it is no accident that in addition to the teacher delegates and speakers present, we ensure that every year representatives of the main bodies and agencies who carry such critical responsibilities in terms of teacher-training, the curriculum and for the system of assessment and examination, are invited to join us. It is splendid that they are able to attend – I am very grateful to them - I know that they share many of my ambitions for education. These coming days are your opportunity to question them and let them know what obstacles stand in your way of inspiring and educating our children. There is (I think, or, at least, hope) some evidence that this dialogue has already had an impact….
We all know that each generation has different challenges to face and exists in a different context to the previous one, and to the one before that. But that is why I think it is absolutely vital that the timeless values and themes which are essential to education are not lost or diminished, but instead are cherished, fostered and embraced. I believe that without the kind of support for those values and themes that I am trying to offer here, the vital forces that sustain teaching run the risk of being lost altogether. I know from the previous Summer Schools that there is a growing commitment from Government and its agencies to reverse the tide of paperwork and initiatives. I welcome what progress has been made, but I know that teachers will want more!
I also know that teachers face a daily struggle to try to find ways of engaging children in their subjects, and it can only be right that intelligent changes to methods of teaching form part of the teacher's armoury. But we must guard against method overwhelming imagination and coherence. Somehow, we need to find ways of repositioning good teaching of English and History to ensure that they retain - or perhaps regain - their crucial place at the very heart of Education - thereby recognizing what we all believe to be their essential role in the development of the human condition, and in the continuation of a civilized framework of meaning and belonging that allows for the acquisition of wisdom within an age of information. And wisdom, when you think about it, is surely the subtle and holistic blend of knowledge, understanding and intuition – intuition being that nowadays much derided aspect of our humanity which allows us to make use of all our senses, not just the rational, deductive sense. Failure to use all our balanced senses has, in my humble opinion, being leading us down the path of unsustainability in so many areas of our existence. But that's another story.
So in education, as in life, it seems to me that there are truths which hold across the millennia. There are vitally important things to be learned about today's society and about our world from those who lived, experienced and learnt about life and the world centuries ago - just as there are things to be learned from modern life and new discoveries to be made. Too often nowadays, I fear, the voguish preoccupations of the present are allowed to divert attention from perennially valuable insights drawn from the past.
Why, for example, has it been suggested in some quarters that people be asked to discuss the use of “texting” and instant messaging and whether such developments require significant change to the teaching of English? Yet it seems to many teachers that there is little enough time in the classroom to introduce pupils to the classics of English Literature. You've all told me this as I've been going round. Why do we need a “great debate” at all on the nature of English? Can it be right that demanding texts be removed from the curriculum in favour of those that are more immediately “relevant?” We should surely do all in our power to introduce young people to the beauty of the English language and the joys of English literature; give them the basic skills of literacy which they will need in adult life and teach them to express themselves clearly – I would have thought, for instance, it was pretty “relevant” to be able to express yourself clearly – it certainly is to many employers!
So, you will also be aware of the enthusiasm in some quarters for “information for learners” rather than knowledge. Is it ‘information' which preoccupies you as teachers of English and History?
Hasn't the learner always been the centre of every good teacher's endeavour? Doesn't the challenge lie in introducing children to the delights of knowledge and the understanding of ideas that they would not otherwise comprehend - to push back their intellectual, emotional and indeed spiritual horizons?
We read that there are those who have signed up to the notion that through the use of thinking skills, pupils can focus on knowing how, as well as knowing that – learning how to learn. By thinking skills, children are to be encouraged to generate and extend ideas, to suggest hypotheses, to apply imagination and to look for alternative, innovative outcomes.
But are we to understand that before they actually know anything, before children have been introduced to the forms of thought and experience which underpin our civilization, that they are to learn how to learn, before they know anything about specific subject areas? Forgive me for posing the question, but where is the enduring long-term value in such an approach? Of course skills are important, but is it not reasonable to suggest that teachers should be trying to maintain a balance between subject depth, ideas and intellectual strength, and an approach which equips children of all abilities with appropriate skills?
Just to take another example for a moment, we hear a great deal about efforts being made in schools to help develop greater self-awareness, management of feelings, enhanced motivation, empathy and social skills amongst pupils. Of course, some children do need help in these areas - after all, they are not unimportant aspects of the human condition. But they are often presented as if they are something separate, to be taught in separate lessons, free from subject and content. But can such elements not be developed by good subject teachers, through their imparting of bodies of knowledge, delivered as part of everyday teaching? And, as part of the development of “social skills”, might it not be a good idea to re-discover the concept of good manners, courtesy and consideration for others? The old idea of “doing to others as you would have them do to you” is hardly “deferential” and might just be “relevant” in terms of social interaction and employment opportunities?
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, I have talked before about my belief that we must maintain what I would describe as an “organic” approach to learning - in other words, something which has its roots in what has gone before and is, to all intents and purposes, a living organism reflecting the fundamental nature of our humanity. Teaching must not become, and you've heard me say this before, a “genetically modified” hybrid which cuts us off from all our cultural and historical heritage and depends for its continuing existence on ceaseless, “clinical” experimentation.
Now I am certain that I am not the only person here today who can say that the lessons I remember from my school days are those taught by teachers who had a passionate enthusiasm for their subjects - and we heard Melvyn Bragg talk about this earlier - and who wanted us to understand more so that we could share their enthusiasm, if not always at the time then later in life. I remember so well how, just taking the Book of Common Prayer for instance, going to Church ever since I was small, I actually learnt most of it by heart. Intriguingly I find as I get older and nearer to death, that those great words with their cadence and majesty come back to me - and I think to many other people who've experienced it - with real meaning. So another great reason for not throwing all these things away. Another good link between the generations I feel. They taught with the authority which derived from their subject, and in the confidence that what they taught would enable their pupils to add their voice in time to that conversation of mankind which at once transcends and unites generations past, present and future.
I know that so many of you from your reports on previous Summer Schools agree that it is crucial your pupils learn to share in what matters so much to you - the masterpieces of English literature and the endless fascination of historical narrative. I can do no better in this context than to urge you to go and see Alan Bennett's brilliant play “The History Boys.” It explores these issues with consummate skill and erudition and, at the end, shows the baby being sucked out with the bathwater. So it's time to clean out the drains and resuscitate the baby!
Anyway, it is for you, ladies and gentlemen, to reflect on the ideals which made you choose your profession, to identify any problems which you think stand in the way of your achievement of these ideals and to suggest how your professional lives and the experience of the children you teach might be enriched.
All I can say is that my own experience was infinitely enriched through the telling and reading of stories that link the generations. I can so well remember the joy of hearing Rudyard Kipling's “Just So Stories”. (Perhaps even they are considered too politically incorrect? I don't know.) Take the Elephant Child, for instance – “says the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake ‘don't you think the sun is very hot here?' ‘It is' said the Elephant Child, and before he thought what he was doing he schlooped up a schloop of mud from the banks of the great-grey-green, greasy Limpopo, and slapped it on his head; here it made a cool schloopy-sloshy mud-cap all trickly behind his ears…” Above all, I can remember how inspired I was when I read “Hiawatha”(do you remember?) by Henry Longfellow. I wasn't read to by Henry Longfellow but by my father. I didn't know at the time that I was captivated by the magic of the trochaic tetrameter. All I recall was the singsong rhythms that conjured up the campfire –
“Should you ask me,
Whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odours of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams
With the rushing of great rivers,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
I should answer, I should tell you,
“From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,”…
But I will not stay you longer
Oh you gathering of teachers;
Will not keep you from your teatime
Nor your crumbs of Duchy biscuits…!
- and so on and so forth… The essence lies in the rhythm. I feel it is so vital to pass on the rhythmic patterns of life to our children. The rhythm of the generations; the rhythm handed down to us in our poetry, literature, music; in our buildings (or in some of them), in what is left of our streetscapes; in the rhythm of the seasons; in our seasonal food; in the music of the spheres; the ceaseless, rhythmic cycles of the Universe – so very, very different from our dangerously fragmented and linear approach to life…
Well such questions and issues go, I hope, to the heart of the discussions that will occupy you for the next few days. There are too many ideas that seem to me to have become orthodoxies because none of you are given sufficient time to reflect and to challenge them. I would have thought that a profession which probes prevailing dogmas is a profession which demonstrates confidence in itself, and a healthy willingness to question and to rethink where necessary. Why did you choose to become History and English teachers? Would you make that choice again?
I do very much hope that you will all take something of lasting value away from these few days at Dartington. I can only wish you well in your discussions and look forward to hearing all your views in the reports that come later.