Charles mourns for hedges and heritage

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Less of a conference and more of an intellectual seminar, the four-day Prince of Wales summer school brought together more than 100 delegates and speakers at the pound;92-a-night Dunston Hall hotel, a mock-Jacobean pile near Norwich.

The Prince opened the conference by again criticising trendy educational thinkers, suggesting they had done to learning what agribusiness did for the British hedge. Vast tracts of cultural heritage had been laid waste, he said.

But even if the Royal views of heritage continue to attract criticism, the summer school itself has become an undeniable success. It is also a politically influential event, as the presence of Education Secretary Charles Clarke suggests. The second summer school for English and history teachers looks set to be repeated annually and Mr Clarke has suggested courses for subjects such as science may be created.

Dunston Hall is in his consituency, of course, which partly explains the Education Secretary's attendance. But he will also be aware that English and history teachers, two of the best-educated and articulate groups of staff in the secondary sector, are deeply unhappy and increasingly vocal.

History teachers have seen their subject squeezed out of the curriculum while English teachers feel they have no professional autonomy - two concerns which clearly emerged from the first Prince of Wales "summer school" last November.

Those attending must have been impressed with the grand list of speakers.

Television historians Dr David Starkey, Professor Niall Ferguson, Michael Wood and Simon Schama lined up alongside poet Seamus Heaney, literary critic Professor Christopher Rix, dramatist Tom Stoppard and thriller writer PD James.

The celebrities were joined by senior education figures, including officials from the Department for Education and Skills and Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Dr Starkey, historian of the Tudors, argued in favour of chance and whim as historical forces and against the idea of historical inevitability. Antony Beevor, military historian and author of Stalingrad, renewed his criticisms of the entertainment industry, accusing it of glamorising the brutal reality of war.

There were more surprising sentiments from Seamus Heaney who, under pressure from journalists, decided to praise the work of Eminem, the chainsaw-wielding rapper. It later emerged that Mr Heaney has never actually listened to the stuff.

The event was funded by two anonymous donors plus a pound;15,000 grant from the DfES.

Last year's event at Dartington Hall, Devon appeared to score a direct political hit. Complaints from speakers and delegates there that a fragmented history curriculum has left students knowing little more than Hitler and the Second World War helped prompt the Education Secretary to admit that the secondary history curriculum need ed overhauling.

This week many were arguing that English too has become fragmented, with pupils rarely getting the chance to read whole books. Bernice McCabe, course director and headmistress of North London collegiate, said there was no wish to abolish testing or the national curriculum, but that the level of government interference needed reducing.

And the event gave Mr Clarke yet another opportunity to put the record straight on medieval history. "I believe the study of history is central to the understanding of our society in every way - and that's not simply argued from some narrow, utilitarian viewpoint," he said.

The invited guests took careful notes.

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