Ladies and Gentlemen, Secretary of State…
Delighted to be with you at the start of the second Prince of Wales Education Summer School. I am particularly pleased because this time last year, in preparation for the first school at Dartington Hall in Devon, nobody knew for certain if there would be a second School. It was very difficult to predict the reaction to that first event; in fact, we were oversubscribed again.
Well, here we are. And I think that Bernice McCabe, the Director, and her Steering Group, should take enormous credit for the success of last year’s event and for what I am sure will be a successful School this year. I am told that more teachers wanted to attend my Summer School here in Norwich than there was space to accommodate. I hope therefore, that we can soon confirm plans which would pave the way towards a third Prince of Wales Summer School next year. But we shall see…
Of course, a critical part of the success of Dartington Hall was the involvement of a superb range of guest speakers and participants who have very kindly/rashly responded to my invitation to stimulate thought and debate. Once again, I and the Steering Group are indebted to those who have been able to join us for what I am sure will be a stimulating, provocative and ultimately challenging course.
But what has actually happened since last year’s School? I think that the Any Questions? session we have all just enjoyed, thanks in large part to Nick Clarke’s excellent chairing, demonstrates that we now have evidence of an enthusiastic, mature and continuing debate on the teaching of English and History in the places where it really matters, that is, in our schools.
And of the teachers who attended the Dartington course? Were there any practical outcomes and did the School make a real difference to them and to their teaching? The answer, based on feedback, is an emphatic yes from the vast majority who attended. There is evidence, I am told, of changes which have been implemented in approaches to teaching English and History, apparently provoked by last year’s event.
Let me quote to you, briefly, some of the comments made to the Steering Group from English and History teachers who attended Dartington:
“It was one of the most useful and uplifting experiences I have had in recent years,” one teacher said.
“The school made me feel fresh again…it was rejuvenating and inspirational and was valuable in terms of building self-esteem,” said another.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to network and meet with so many informed and critically supportive professionals,” said a third teacher.
Warm and heartening responses, I am sure you will agree. I am advised that some teachers wrote afterwards to say that on returning to their school, they had felt inspired to rewrite parts of their teaching materials for English and History. One delegate said she felt that the Dartington course had, firstly, refreshed her belief in herself, and secondly, had reminded her and colleagues of the importance of good story-telling as an essential tool of effective teaching.
All this is, I believe, immensely encouraging. In the wider arena, it has also been heartening to hear that the Secretary of State has been asking some pertinent questions about the content of the History curriculum, with a view to stimulating a substantive and searching debate. The results will, I am sure, be of great interest to all those here and in classrooms up and down the country.
In the spirit of that debate, I want to say from the outset that the main point about my Education Summer School is that it exists to facilitate, to encourage and to inspire. It is not about indoctrination. It is about making time for hard-pressed teachers, and I know what a difficult and challenging job you all have, to discuss fundamental questions about the nature of education and the contribution that their subjects can make to the intellectual and emotional development of young people in our schools. It is about reminding people of some of the timeless principles underpinning teaching.
It is also, crucially, I think, about reminding people of what has been lost throughout the twentieth century, and how we can recover a proper balance. I often think that the kind of fashionable changes we have witnessed in the field of education during the last fifty years have been mirrored in other areas of life – in particular with regard to agriculture and the environment, architecture and certain aspects of healthcare.
In all cases there has been a dramatic move from what I can only describe as an “organic” approach – 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 – to a “genetically modified” approach which cuts us off from all our cultural and historical heritage and relies on ceaseless, “clinical” experimentation. It is strange, isn’t it, that the twentieth – and now it seems the twenty-first century – mindset seems to want to genetically engineer everything; to cut all roots: to homogenize, synthesize and globalize, when what we urgently need to do once again is to harmonize.
I cannot go into too much detail as there is not enough time to do so on this occasion, but I believe there is a good analogy, as far as what has happened within the Educational establishment is concerned, with what has occurred in the agricultural sector. In this case we have witnessed the comprehensive destruction of so much of our precious countryside.
During the twentieth century we have seen the uprooting of hundreds of miles of hedges, we have lost over half our ancient woodland, ninety per cent of our chalk downland and our traditional hay meadows have been reduced to just two per cent of their original area. All this destruction – which everyone, ironically, is now concerned to try and restore (along with more natural, safer methods of producing our food) – came about as farmers responded to clear economic signals and the advice and encouragement of the experts and academics. The farmers got the blame for what happened but, in truth, they were merely responding to official encouragement and incentive.
In the field of education I would contend that we have witnessed a similar destruction of our cultural, linguistic and historical habitat since the Second World War, again encouraged by the fashionable ideas of experts and educationists, which has meant that many people have become culturally disinherited.
To take one example: can it be right, as is claimed by some, that “thinking” should dominate the life of a school, ahead of “knowledge”? Am I wrong to believe that thinking stems from knowledge? If you follow that logic, the more ignorant the children the more profound their insights!
Surely nothing is more relevant than the knowledge that allows children to make sense of the world they inherit? In my view, knowledge taught well by expert and enthusiastic teachers simply cannot be beaten and yet I am aware that it has been said that the main task of a teacher is to be a “learning manager” or to equip people with “learnacy” skills. Perhaps some agree – but I find it very hard to be inspired by such a concept which involves yet another potentially expensive and disastrous experiment of people’s lives.
As with the farmers, it is not the fault of the teachers. Each group has to respond to the signals, incentives and pressures from their own Establishments and, in initiating these Summer Schools, I just sensed, ladies and gentlemen there was mounting unease and concern amongst a substantial proportion of the teaching profession about certain aspects of the way their subjects are required to be taught and about the accumulated wisdom and knowledge (the organic bit!) which is being denied to their pupils.
That is why I was so keen to involve the various guest speakers and participants in the Summer School, so that they could convey, as they see it from the perspective of practitioners, the vital necessity of maintaining coherent, chronological story-telling in the teaching of History and the power of narrative in the teaching of English. These were probably the most important, shared points to come out of last year’s Summer School and I hope will receive due emphasis this year.
I need hardly say that, I am not here to tell you how to do your job as teachers but, in my view, education is about opening people’s minds, it is about exploration, discovery, about undertaking journeys. It is not, to my mind, about closing things down or narrowing the paths upon which children will tread. English and History, the two subjects at the heart of my Summer School, are therefore essential to those processes. We owe it, I think, to the next generation to give bodies of knowledge to children, even though they may not necessarily appreciate or understand the need for such depth and breadth at an early stage.
So how can we encourage young people without turning them off learning? That is, as I have said, where your skills and professionalism come to bear. To me, put simply, children need to be able to walk before they can run – in educational terms they need to be taught the basic building blocks of literacy and numeracy, then elementary knowledge within their different subjects. This gives them power and control because it equips them to approach the world in a way that can help them to make sense of it.
The Education Press has reported that “experts” in education have argued that more time should be spent teaching skills and less time imparting knowledge. We must not, in my view, risk a long-term devaluation of knowledge. That would have a disastrous impact on everybody, but most of all on children who have not enjoyed particular privileges. They, it appears to me, have everything to lose from such an approach.
I know, for example, that for schools such as the Robert Clack School in Dagenham, Essex, which sits amidst one of the largest council housing estates in the United Kingdom, confidence and a sense of identity amongst individual pupils are fundamental issues. To develop these elements, there is an awareness and emphasis on cultural heritage which, on the face of it, is bringing some excellent results in terms of awards and achievements for a school which was facing what were officially described as “challenging circumstances.”
The Head Teacher, Paul Grant, who is with us today, I am very glad to say, writes that “an affirmation and celebration of culture and heritage are key to making our pupils fulfilled and able to cope in the wider world, as citizens who are able to uphold values which strengthen our society”. A key part of achieving such fulfilment amongst pupils is therefore to offer both knowledge- development and skills-building, otherwise education becomes shallow and thin.
On a slightly different point, it is clear to me that creativity, another great vogue, is not an alternative to knowledge. True creativity depends upon knowledge as opposed to facile, self-indulgent experimentation. Some of the most creative people in history were the product (by our standards) of extraordinarily rigid education systems. Creativity and self-expression cannot be used as a substitute for teaching people the knowledge and understanding they need if they are to be able to argue using evidence from an objective position.
In education, as in life, it seems to me that there are truths which hold across millennia. There are great things to be learned about today’s society and our world from those who lived, experienced and learnt about life and the world centuries ago. This does not mean that nothing of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries is worth knowing, studying or learning from. But I simply don’t believe that all the answers and worthwhile experience are to be found from within our most recent history or literature.
Some people inevitably choose to categorize this position as being hidebound by tradition. I don’t agree. History should take all human knowledge for its province. If you want to know where you are going, it helps to know where you are and how you got there. History, when it is properly defined and taught, enables us to see ourselves and our culture in relation to our past and, in that sense, confers a sense of identity based on evidence, not an exercise in imagination. The trouble about education – speaking from hindsight – is that, when young, you sometimes can’t see the point in much of what is being taught.
In my view, it is only when you are older you appreciate the true value of things that seemed irrelevant, or boring, at the time. But this is not an argument for letting pupils decide what should be taught on the basis of how entertaining or “relevant” it is. In broadcasting terms, for example, we are constantly being told that radio and television programmes must be made “accessible” to younger people. But why must they be made more “accessible” – which actually often means dumbing down the content and value of programmes – thereby, ruining everything for those who are older (and it has been officially confirmed, ladies and gentlemen, that statistically – that the over fifties have now outnumbered the younger)?
The truth is that we are in danger of sacrificing the future on the altar of a fashionable, well-meaning, but dogmatic correctness which fails to understand, or acknowledge, that people do not remain in their teens forever, and that we all go through phases often ending up in our thirties actually listening to Radio Four, for instance.
In my view, much of what applies to History, applies also to English. In literature, we must not ignore so much of our incomparably rich literary heritage. I would not dream of trying to tell you how best to teach reading and understanding – that is your special skill. What I am saying is that it would be shameful if we in the UK, of all people and of all places, did not take a pride in learning and using the English language well. Others do beyond these shores; they even venerate Shakespeare!
The young don’t need as much help with modern literature. It is for the books that they would not otherwise read for themselves that good teachers matter. I am reminded of the person in the Bible (Acts, Chapter Eight), who was asked: “Understandest thou what thou readest?” and who replied “How can I, except some man should guide me.”
It is you, the teachers we look to as the guides; we need you to be steeped in knowledge to show us how to read the books we would not read for ourselves. You will not be surprised to hear that, in the light of all this, I think it is important to teach those authors whose work has stood the test of time, whose work we can love and cherish for its own sake. I also believe that it cannot be right to reduce such treasured texts to a series of simple exercises, a comment made recently by an English teacher trainer.
It also seems to me that language and literature in our heritage and history are a common inheritance, and are not the private property of the privileged. Access to them is the right of every citizen which it is the duty of a civilized society to safeguard. As George Orwell pointed out in Nineteen Eighty-Four : “The best way of getting rid of history and thought is to get rid of the language of history and ideas.”
Now, I said last year that we have to be ambitious in what we show young people, if we want them to be ambitious in turn: ambitious to understand, to read, to speak, to create, to feed and articulate their individual wants and needs. I want to leave that thought about ambition with you at the opening of this year’s Summer School. The consequence, it seems to me, of limiting or even extinguishing ambition is that we end up with an entire generation of culturally disinherited young people. That, I would suggest, we simply cannot risk.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen.