Richard Holloway

6th May 2011 at 01:00
The former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church now chairs Sistema Scotland, an organisation that aims to raise children's aspirations by introducing them to orchestral music. He endorses discussion of issues that `pluck the nerves of religious thinkers' in RE lessons

What was school like for you?

It was not a great educational experience, because most of the teachers were educated monks and not trained teachers. My memory of it is of very boring lectures. It was small: we were only 30 boys. There was a good library and I discovered I am not teachable but I can teach myself.

Was there a teacher who really made a difference to your life?

When I got into what they called "The House" in Kelham, Nottinghamshire, the best teacher was Father Stephen. He taught the New Testament. I can remember his lecture on The Letter to the Romans. He was a very austere man. We called him Yahweh, after God. He had a deep asthmatic voice. He would stamp the floor with his foot and go into this rant; he was very effective. I think what really stuck was the atmosphere of the place. It wasn't a sausage factory - they wanted us to think and there was a great emphasis on thinking for ourselves, not simply repeating the textbooks.

How do you think education is different today?

That was so long ago and it was so eccentric. I think it is probably better and more imaginative now in primary. In my day it was very much learning by rote and I was belted very severely. At Kelham we were encouraged to think and not simply to repeat, and I wonder if there is enough of what I would call "education by eccentricity" and if there is not too much in the way of feeding people onto a production line to get through exams. I don't know enough to say that very confidently.

You have been quite supportive of the principles of Curriculum for Excellence. How do you feel it is going?

I am involved in a movement to change the lives of poor children through orchestral music (Sistema Scotland), and everything gets better when they develop a skill and a passion. I am hoping that Curriculum for Excellence doesn't become a "curriculum". The word is wrong; it implies this packaged feeding. Creating an open, imaginative, experimental atmosphere that allows children to flourish and experiment takes quite a lot of courage and I think there are lots of teachers who are maybe too intimidated to allow that generosity of time and space to happen.

How did Sistema Scotland come about?

I was chair of the Scottish Arts Council at the time and was asked if I had heard of Sistema in Venezuela. I went on the internet and discovered this astonishing man had founded a movement to transform the lives of Venezuelan children through orchestral music, and I thought: "I wonder if that would work in Scotland?", because we have a problem of persistent deprivation.

Were you ever worried it might not work?

Yes, and there was a lot of scepticism, but children are children everywhere. Obviously, we will only measure its success if we go on to develop centres up and down Scotland. We are only just starting up, but we are already transforming the lives of these children and discovering gifted musicians. I am hoping that after the election, whichever government gets into power, they know this is good and I hope we can get some money into the system.

Do you think there is too much focus on exams, test results and assessment?

I am very much an outsider here, but I do get the impression there is a hell of a lot of that going on. I know a good pedagogy involves learning and re-learning, but I think you need a judicious blend of applied discipline and learning and a kind of free-flowing creativity, and I don't know whether we have got that right. I don't want to knock schools - it's a tough job, given the intrusions of government into it.

Do you think there is still a place for RE in schools?

It does offer an opportunity for blue sky thinking, philosophical thinking, wrestling with big issues and introducing children to the plurality of opinions around the world about meaning. I think if it is done imaginatively, it can open children's minds to all of that. It is quite exciting stuff, when done well. I think we either should do it well or we shouldn't do it at all.

A Glasgow University-led study showed that RE is quite often under-valued, under-resourced in schools and can be taught in a superficial way. Do you agree?

I do, and I think it is maybe done more superficially at primary school because they don't have specialists, so we need to equip and gear up the subject at primary level.

You organised a conference on assisted dying. Do you think questions like that should be included in RE?

Absolutely. It is a hot subject and it plucks the nerves of intentional religious thinkers. It is one of the biggest philosophical conundrums facing us in this country at the moment and it is being shied away from, precisely because it is politically so sensitive. Moral and religious education offers an opportunity to debate some really fundamental issues. War and peace, the arms race, selling arms, the war on drugs, life and death issues, sexuality - this is stuff that lives deeply in people. I have done little bits of that myself in schools and I have always been electrified by the engagement that children offer.

Personal profile

Born: Possilpark, Glasgow, 1933

Education: Vale of Leven Academy and The House of the Sacred Mission Kelham, Nottinghamshire

Career: Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church; then chair of the Scottish Arts Council; now chair of Sistema Scotland, author and broadcaster.

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