As real as..the Holy Grail?;Last word

29th October 1999 at 01:00
WHERE can I find the real world? When I was a child, my uncle Ralph warned me that I would one day enter the real world. I have been looking for the damned thing ever since, like Sir Percival in his quest for the Holy Grail.

But there is often a priggish element when someone accuses you of not being in their particular version of the real world, and I get browned off when education is said to be the very antithesis of the real world, a huge unreality. Schools seem real enough when you are in them, sometimes even harsh.

As a workplace, for example, education has been generally regarded in recent years as one of the more stressful. There are few more emotionally demanding jobs than working every day in a place where the assignment is open-ended and some of the young clients have severe problems.

Although headteachers have, quite rightly, been urged to learn from the so-called real world of industry, much could be gained the other way round - many heads have become adept at managing sparse resources, cheering up demoralised employees, improving inadequate buildings and making the best of apparently insoluble problems.

Nor is life in education necessarily unreal for children. What is more real than struggling to read and understand something, discovering the importance of persistence and teamwork, or learning how to get along with one's fellows?

In his Epistles, Seneca expressed the common criticism of schooling: Non vitae sed scholae discimus. We learn not for life but for school. Yet how would doctors, architects, engineers and solicitors survive without the language, maths, science, or other foundations of specialist subject knowledge they learned in schools and universities?

I have always felt uneasy when schools have tried too self-consciously to ape the supposed real world of grown-ups. Work experience is fine, but I have never warmed to those pupil co-operatives making hideous garden gnomes and grotesque pieces of naff origami that are then sold to parents and gullible friends, so the young can understand how business works. In the real world of business, customers would take one look at the crafted "Millennium Dome" - consisting of a cardboard plate painted silver, with some string and a few Rice Krispies glued to it - and mutter something like "I'm not paying good money for this kind of crap", or words to that effect, before hurrying off to Woolworth's.

An even more elusive Holy Grail is trying to find yourself in the real world. Which is the real you? Marking books? Eating a meal? Wearing your best clothes? Shouting at Darren Rowbottom? Looking in the mirror first thing in the morning and coming face to face with Count Dracula?

Schiller said that we are only a whole person when at play, a most important activity for both children and adults. I was surprised at the hysteria that greeted proposals for structured play in pre-school education, as if pleasure and spontaneity had been banned for ever. A game of ludo is structured play, but it is also good fun and play is related to the real world. Baby lions in what appears to be purposeless play are in fact engaged in a deadly, clawless enactment of adult life.

Small wonder that so many children have profited from the literacy and other types of summer school on offer nowadays. They enjoyed them as play.

I have come to the conclusion that the real world is wherever you want it to be. It is the familiar environment - or the preferred belief - of the person who utters the phrase, so it is supposedly superior to the habitat of the listener, who is thereby made to appear an inferior person, with an overly easy lifestyle by comparison.

According to one legend, Sir Percival did actually encounter the Holy Grail on his travels, but fell asleep at the crucial moment. That story reminds me of the school inspector who nodded off at the back of the classroom during a lesson he was observing.

Perhaps, like Sir Percival, he had at last discovered that school can be part of the real world, and it was just too much for him.

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