Queen subject to disapproval

20th October 2006 at 01:00
She is the Queen of Bling. Lorraine has coloured her hair but only 60 per cent of the class have noticed. She struts around the others, tossing her locks and demanding, "Guess what's changed?" until they pay homage. Later, when she finds she has only a supermarket bag in which to take home her folder, she is mortified. She can't possibly be seen with something so cheap.

Meanwhile, the students' attention is redirected to the real Queen. As part of the course, they have to debate a topical issue. There's a lot of easily accessible background information, so our topic for discussion is: Do we still need the monarchy?

The class has been given internet references and two lessons in which to research. Now time is up, and their tutor tells them to switch off the monitors and gather around the central table, bringing with them the information they need to back up their arguments.

He explains how they will be assessed. Attentive listening will be judged by body language, eye contact and so on, but three students already have ground to make up. Wayne has his back to the group. Laura is slumped on her chair staring at the floor, and Lorraine, who has forgotten about her hair colour, has switched on her MP3 player.

At last we are ready. Chris decides that Her Majesty may not be in tune with today's world because "she don't know nothing about computers". We reveal that the Queen first sent an email in 1973, before Chris was born.

Lee feels the Queen may not be a sympathetic figure to folks like him because "she talks posh". We point out that she speaks not only the Queen's English but is also fluent in French. "What's the good of that," he asks, "since she's Queen of England?" Despite the fact that we have been celebrating the Queen's 80th birthday, Wayne suggests that "she's only there to make babies". He adds reflectively: "They could've got someone from our estate for that."

After two weeks' research they have produced no references to parliamentary democracy, not a mention of public expenditure, taxation, or income from tourism, no thought of diplomatic representation, no comment on the size of the royal household - and very few marks for debating skills.

I ask if they knew that for a short while we had a republic in England, after the king was executed. They ask why, and want to know if it was our Queen's father who was decapitated, but when I tell them it was about 400 years ago, they lose interest.

I have a class of adults with learning difficulties who are much keener to discuss royalty. Back in the spring, this group planned and made birthday cards for Her Majesty. They were very motivated and put a lot of effort into it. Unfortunately, I couldn't help with their request to "get her to come and see us", but I did send their cards to Buckingham Palace. Every week, they asked me if the Queen had got them, and I assured them she had.

I found a photograph in the newspaper of her looking at her cards and pointed to one of the unopened envelopes peeping out from the pile. I suggested that one must be theirs. Their faith was rewarded after a few weeks, when an envelope arrived, bearing a Buckingham Palace postmark. The letter was from a lady-in-waiting, sent on the instructions of Her Majesty, to thank the students for their good wishes. The students were beside themselves with pride and only a mite disappointed that she hadn't invited them to tea.

But hard on this success came devastating news: their day centre is threatened with closure. Buoyed up by the royal response, they decided to write to their MP. I provided an outline format and helped each of them articulate a personal reason for keeping the centre open.

We added an invitation to the MP to visit the centre and mailed the letters to Westminster. In his reply, our MP explained that he had written to the local council and would let us know the response. The day centre clients are now convinced all will be well.

Their protests may not save the day, but they have written a real letter to a real person on a subject of great importance to them. What's more, they have taken a rare step in controlling their own destiny - skills for life indeed.

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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