You can’t beat a big sign in a tunnel taking you to an aircraft for being in your face and making you think. Trapped for a few minutes in one of those tubes from departure lounge to plane before a transatlantic flight, I was confronted by many statements about the state of today’s shrinking world and changing commercial possibilities, courtesy of HSBC.
Ah, HSBC. Such prosaic initials, but I have a romantic attachment to HSBC. Many years ago, in my impressionable youth, a renegade cousin upped sticks and left the security of home and family in the north of Ireland, and set off to seek his fortune in Hong Kong. This was so long ago I suspect he went by boat. It certainly sounded hopelessly exotic to a kid cousin in the wilds of North Wales. Whatever. What he landed was a job in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the forerunner of HSBC. I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.
And this particular sign was more in my territory than most. Nothing to do with markets, this simply said that, in the brave new world, “Education will be the wisest investment you can make”. Amen to that, I thought.
But hang on – what do we mean by education? What did HSBC mean? And what did I mean? Not necessarily the same thing, of course. And these days, does it just equate to grades? Or is there more to it than that?
Oh please, God, yes, though it may be a bit late in the day to ask for it to be bigger, wider, more mysterious, even more elusive than grades, because God knows they have become easy to get, and getting them is no longer an indication that you have been, or now are, educated.
If grades were going to matter – with teacher performances and school efficacy to be measured by them, and them alone – then they quickly became all that mattered. And if that was the case, then we’d better make it crystal clear how to get those grades – no doubts, no equivocations – just certainty, to clock up the vital numbers. Numbers were always easy – of course – for maths, and not bad for science, but the arts? History? English lit? Enter stage left, assessment objectives. Hit one of those, tick a box, got it – AO 4 or 3 or 2 or whatever. The content of literature , the great books, the scope of the language, became subservient to the boxes which could be ticked by the weakest candidates and positively had for breakfast by the best.
In my own A-level teaching days, watching ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ deconstructed into a series of learnable statements about the date of its writing being lined up with the date of the Gunpowder Plot – hence anti-Catholic sentiment stoked by making the arch-villain the Cardinal, not the Duke – I heard a small voice of protest from an experienced English teacher.
“You are transforming me,” he told the exam board rep, “from a teacher qualified to teach Eng lit by two degrees into a Ladybird history teacher.” (No disrespect to the Ladybird books, but I took his point.)
Content also went down. I studied a book called ‘Ten Twentieth Century Poets’ for O level. I actually bought the text recently in an Oxfam shop, just to count the poems – 120. To be known sufficiently well to be recalled in exam conditions when faced by questions like, “Discuss how Robert Frost, RS Thomas and Edward Thomas deal with nature in their poems”. Woe betide the candidate who swotted (such an old-fashioned term) TS Eliot, Yeats and Larkin instead of the three who came up. Tough. At least you had the consolation of having really touched base with more than one giant of twentieth-century poetry – though maybe that would be scant consolation if you knew so much, but the question just never came up. I get that.
Less likely to happen in recent times. A couple of years ago, I was asked to help a young man a few days away from his GCSE in Eng lit. The problem? The poetry, which turned out to be just 15 poems – 15! He had a script of the 15, much scribbled over – here a metaphor, there a rhyme.
“Do you know these?” I asked.
“Don’t need to – they’ll be on the desk, a clean copy, of course, in the exam – we’re not allowed to take notes in.”
You don’t say. But you have the poems. No strain on the memory, then.
Even without notes, it’s too little, it’s too undemanding, it’s pandering to the lowest possible common denominator, and suddenly I am all for Gove’s plans to make things tougher again. Sweat for success, like athletes. It’s not just ‘get a grade’ time at the funfair – chuck a ball at the coconut, watch it fall – bingo. Education is an introduction to a whole culture, whatever your specialism, and we lose that at our peril. Fifteen poems are not enough. You deserve better, more, than that.
Of course, we may have lost it already. There will be English teachers in classrooms today who are slightly hazy about apostrophes and wouldn’t know an adverbial clause if it snapped at their heels. My own daughter got a good degree in English from a Russell Group university with a shortish shelf of texts, including some on Norse literature, but very little on Shakespeare because she was too late signing up for that most popular of options. My degree – c. 1970 – left me with a wall of books, some only recently discarded, with my husband still muttering darkly as we unpacked a case released from deep storage, “Not more blinking poetry books!” (He didn’t say “blinking”.)
Yes, more blinking poetry and I am proud of it.
And I do worry about the dumbing down, the ‘reduction ad absurdum’ of the new Proms’ series, which will have an evening of themes from sports programmes. I love the music of ‘Ski Sunday’ – but at the Proms? Young people may love it, target audience that they are, so that’s a win. But surely we need to reach young people with the good, hard stuff, not keep them forever fossilised in juvenile, easy taste, not rewarded with an A* in English lit for a passing acquaintance with 15 fairly easy poems.
A local paper in Wales last week advertised “Books of suitable readings and prayers for funerals – call to view our selection!” For the big occasions – birth, death, marriage – we need words. They lie about in centuries of Eng lit, but now – who knows what treasure there is? Local paper to the rescue – here are the lollipops, easy on the eye, and the tongue – not going to stick in any modern possibly ill-educated throat.
But I recently attended a funeral with an order of service fatter than normal with ‘reflections’ the dead man, a leading headmaster in his day, would have known and loved and chosen for his final service. The selection included pieces from Becket and Joyce, Cavafy and Donne and Herbert, and the music for the anthems was by Brahms. Not a trace of ‘My Way’.
What access to a wide and deep culture did this man have? What roads had he travelled that today we consider not useful, interesting, valuable, testable, assessable for our young, stuck with the simple, do-able, prosaic and ordinary rattles of very simple men? In brief, the roads of a classical education, Latin and Greek and English literature and fine music, and many things we are fast losing, discarding, chucking away in pursuit of easy grades and an education not worth the name.
And me? I stand before you as guilty as any of us in British education today. Reader, it happened on my shift, and whatever I did to stop it, it wasn’t enough.
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association W: www.boarding.org.uk