History boys' call for centre stage

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Teachers talk shop with the Prince of Wales at his fourth education summer school. William Stewart reports

Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner, the team behind last year's National Theatre smash hit The History Boys, have called for English literature and history to be made compulsory subjects until the age of 16.

The author and director were among the literati and leading historians talking to teachers at this week's Prince of Wales education summer school.

Other speakers included Seamus Heaney, Robert Harris, Melvyn Bragg and historian Lord Wilson.

Mr Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said that when producing The History Boys, he had been shocked by the lack of knowledge among the eight actors playing the teenage pupils and spent a week bringing them up to speed with what was taught in the play.

He pointed to the levels of ignorance too among his audiences when arguing for the curriculum change. He accepted that when he was at school 30 years ago people complained that pupils did not receive a full classical education.

But Mr Hytner said: "The fact that Henry IV usurped Richard II who was then murdered was just something that I had been taught. There is little I can rely on now even at the National Theatre with our metropolitan audience.

"Generation by generation, the feeling I get is that people are being cheated of something that is really good to know.

"Certainly it makes life harder if you produce theatre of 50 per cent classical repertoire if you have people who don't have an overview of English literature and history."

Mr Bennett, who wrote The History Boys, a play about three teachers with radically different styles, also wanted history and English literature to be made compulsory and questioned Sixties education standards.

He recalled friends whose children had finished primary school in north London in the Sixties scarcely able to read. They assumed the school must have had a philosophy, but in fact it left their children without basic skills.

"They were going to be on the lowest rung of the ladder," he said. "They learned nothing. They had a nice time but they didn't get very far."

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