A bunfight in a bastion of privilege

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
William Richardson recalls a clash between different worlds

Education and industry. Bread rolls at dusk. Although it never made the papers, the headlines would have read "Brideshead Besieged: Comprehensive School Teachers Trash Posh Dinner".

The origins of the 1982 Trinity Hall fracas were mundane. Earlier that year I took a call at my office in Unilever's soap-making HQ in Kingston upon Thames. Would I agree to help on one of the company's Introduction to Management courses for teachers in state schools? Introduce them to human resources management techniques, discuss the changing nature of workplace skills, that sort of thing? This seemed a good chance to get out of the office and do some Christmas shopping in Cambridge.

The course initially went well. My personnel in-tray exercise, with its fictional management dilemma, led to some animated discussion. What would you do if the shop stewards in your factory instructed their workers on ethical grounds not to participate in a promotion because it involved the giveaway of a free cigar? And while the session on manufacturing technology didn't seem to grab the teachers of English, another colleague had a lively debate on the morality of value added.

Only gradually did I detect a note of unease. One or two of the teachers commented that they weren't sure why they had been singled out for invitation. And why was a Cambridge college such an obvious place for people in education to learn something from those engaged in manufacturing? Were these the surroundings in which it was assumed the average teacher worked? Put this way, the venue did seem bit odd.

Things came to a head on the last evening. Perhaps the flow of complementary wine at dinner was the catalyst. After an ample rather than lavish meal, my friend Tom stood up to give the after-dinner speech. Tom was young and bright. Moreover, he was speech-writer to the company chairman and his theme was "The Moral Responsibility of the Corporate Multinational".

At first he was heard in something approaching quiet, although the wine ensured a low-level buzz. "More than is sometimes realised," he continued, "multinationals are a benign presence in the way that they ." Ping! A bread roll zipped past Tom's left ear and thudded into the hall's oak panelling. "Not only this, the stimulus of large corporations to national economies around the globe ." Zang! Tom ducked, but I noticed the look of horror on the college steward's face as the second roll narrowly missed an 18th-century bishop hanging on the wall. A cry of "Shame!" came from the hall. Tom continued doggedly: "Wherever . it . trades . Unilever . endeavours . to ." Whiz! Missiles were now coming from several directions, accompanied by a good deal of baying. Tom sat down. The steward ordered the staff to clear the tables. An awkward silence fell and the diners drifted off.

I was fascinated. What on earth was going on? From where had this hostility sprung? I knew the arguments about "the multinational question" but I hadn't expected a routine professional conference to descend into bread-throwing.

As the teachers packed for home the next morning, some came to apologise on behalf of their colleagues. Their manners had been deplorable, they said, but perhaps the course team would have some things to think over? The gulf between the world of manufacturing and teaching, they counselled, was very wide.

Four years later, when the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce launched Industry Year in an attempt to bridge that gulf, I was on the opposite side, working at Warwick University to introduce to the PGCE programme a mandatory placement of trainees into companies. It was the Unilever course re-engineered, rooted in local relations.

For me it was the beginning of 25 years of getting to know the workings of comprehensive schools in much greater detail. It was also one small sign that some of the major teacher assumptions of the 1970s would, as the century drew to a close, face an assault from as many sides as the bread rolls that Tom had to duck that winter night in Cambridge.

William Richardson is general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and honorary professor at the Graduate School of Education, Exeter University.

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