From Great Expectations to Hard Times

25th August 1995 at 01:00
In this part of East Anglia, to have one shed in your garden would be considered a little bit odd. Nobody starts counting until you have put up at least three, and five is not reckoned especially remarkable. One old boy has between six and 10 (they are quite difficult to count as they lean into each other and prop each other up, their contents bursting through holes in the walls and windows). "Might come in useful" is the universal excuse, if one were needed, for all this squirrelling away of timber and tools, bottles and bikes, pots and prams and a great deal else.

As a newcomer, only 12 years in the village, I have called a halt at three sheds to avoid drawing attention to myself, but I do have three very large compost bins tucked away discreetly at the bottom of the garden and I keep quiet about those. There is so much muck and manure of every description, available by the trailer load, that my habit of putting vegetable peelings and paper into purpose-built containers, then waiting several months for them to rot down, would be considered eccentric. Daft would be the word.

Out in search of straw to fuel my bins (alternate layers of damp straw and grass cuttings make magnificent compost) I walked into a field littered with straw bales and asked a man driving a tractor if I could have one. "Better take one when I'm not looking," he said and watched me as I struggled away with my prize.

"Thanks a lot," I called back. "Sure you don't mind?"

"Naw, I don't mind," he shouted; then added, after a long pause, "T'aint mine."

Apart from rotting things down, my chief occupation over the summer months has been swotting things up. I've been reading, morning noon and night, in preparation for another course in English language and literature. If I was 18 I suppose I would see the great wealth of English literature as a mountain to be scaled at speed, with a coil of rope, a pick and a flag in my hand to be planted on the peak in a matter of three years.

My climb will be slower, on marked paths, with sherpas carrying oxygen and the intellectual equivalent of Kendal mint cake. I am breathless but it is with excitement, the naive delight of a latecomer who has stumbled into a field of treasures and is in no hurry to leave them.

I've spent the long, hot August days in the company of Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye, Michael Henchard, Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba, Tom and Maggie Tulliver, Thomas Gradgrind and Louisa and the quite delectable Mrs Sparsit. They spring from their covers like straw from cut bales and, luckily for me, they ain't nobody's. Currently they're mine and I'm carting them home from second-hand bookshops, libraries and jumble sales and re-cycling them through my empty but eager head.

Reading and rotting, that's what I've been doing.

Sifting through such rich loam, if I may stretch the metaphor to crumbling point, I have come across some very instructive material, especially in the field of educational theory. There's Dombey's succinct "the inferior classes should continue to be taught to know their position, and to conduct themselves properly. So far I approve of schools." And the better known Utilitarianism of Thomas Gradgrind, summed up in his repellent maxim "Stick to Facts, Sir!" But I came to Hard Times immediately after making visits to more than 50 school-centred initial teacher training schemes and was reminded that the nourishment thought adequate for today's teachers is thin gruel compared with the cornucopia of a curriculum served up to Mr M'Choakumchild. "He and some 140 other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many piano legs...and had answered volumes of headbreaking questions.

Orthography, etymology, syntax and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers."

I would need to refer back to my notes on the school visits of course but I'm fairly sure that lip service only was paid to land-surveying and levelling. I came across no cosmography and fear that we may have to look beyond practising classroom teachers to find adequate instruction in etymology, prosody and syntax.

However, teacher trainers should draw little comfort from all this. Listen to Clym Yeobright's mother on hearing her son describe his system of education "which is as new as it is true": "Dreams, dreams. If there had been any system left to be invented they would have found it out at the universities long before this time."

The evidence here is surely damning. If the professionals haven't cracked it by now they're probably never going to. However hard they try, Clym points out, they are bound to fail. "They cannot find it out, because their teachers don't come into contact with the class that demands such a system..." That sounds like "no recent and relevant experience with the demanding classes" to me lads, so hand in your corduroy jackets and your bicycles and let someone else have a go at this teacher training business. But who?

Now I have found an industrialist who might fit the bill, a rich man: banker, manufacturer and what not. His mills provide the pleasantest work there is. To quote him: "We couldn't improve the mills themselves, unless we laid down Turkey carpets on the floors. Which we're not a-going to do." That's the sort of no-nonsense approach which would surely revitalise teacher training. Having so recently read about this man, whose name by the way is Bounderby, I am confident he would be willing to undertake the commission, and he might agree to provide work experience for 14-year-olds at no extra cost. I can hear him saying, with a proud chuckle, "After all, they ain't mine."

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