Speech packs a punch;English

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Geoff Barton explains why he used Earl Spencer's funeral oration for Diana in a book about grammar - and what it was like to be the centre of the media attention it created.

English teachers are always scavenging for fresh texts to use in class. I'm worse than most. I was once found rifling through a skip because I'd seen a newspaper front page for the next day's lesson. So it wasn't so surprising to hit upon the idea of using Earl Spencer's speech for Diana's funeral service, at Westminster Abbey on September 6, 1997, as part of a new grammar book.

Speeches are particularly difficult to teach well. In an age of soundbites, students encounter ever fewer examples of the genre: a smattering, perhaps, in school assemblies; a blend of emotional gush and nervy thank-yous at the Oscars and Brit Awards; maybe the odd TV or radio clip of parliamentary speech-making.

It's in politics that the tradition of speeches lives on, and I think we owe it to our students to give them an informed understanding of the way speech-writers manipulate our responses. Take that line of President Reagan's, about the Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts: "They slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God." It's corn, but brilliantly effective and worth closer analysis.

It's becoming harder to find speeches which speak directly to students. Ransack Hansard and you unearth windy rhetoric on arcane topics. This can provoke a dangerous response - trying to find subject matter that's "relevant to the kids". This way lie speeches on drugs, contraception and Teletubbies.

That's why the Diana speech is so important. It's about someone our students all knew, someone who one way or another touched their lives. And it was at a time they'll remember - one of those moments in our history that we'll all recall.

Like many good English lessons, the speech allows us to explore first the context - our memories of that momentous day - and then to step back and examine the speech in its own terms. That's what the questions in Grammar in Context encourage students to do, using a real spoken text to prompt closer attention to the stylistic conventions used by the writer. Nothing, you'd have thought, controversial about that.

Then the media circus rolled up. The Express picked up the initial press release about the book. "Spencer's eulogy to Diana is a lesson for all children" was the headline, and this kicked off unbelievable interest. It was a sign, I suppose, of the enduring legacy of Diana.

The day of the story I was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, the Press Association and local newspapers. By 8.30am, Anglia news had arranged to film me teaching a hastily-convened class. The BBC sent a film crew from the Six O'Clock News. That afternoon I spoke to Radio 4's PM and Radio 5 Live. By the next day I had talked to stations in Australia and South Africa, taken part in a late-night phone-in, and the story ran in The Times, the Evening Standard, and the Guardian. It was picked up again by columnists in the Sunday papers, and featured on the BBC web site. I declined offers to go on BBC News 24 and Breakfast News.

The questions early on were all the same: how would the speech be used in class? How did students react to it? Then the focal point rapidly shifted: was the Earl's speech really any good? Was it worthy of being taught in schools? Was the education of the nation's youth being placed in jeopardy?

I should never have got into this debate. What do I know about great speeches, after all? I don't read Spit Nolan with Year 7 because it's a literary classic but because it works in class. Such was my rationale for including the Spencer speech. It's a sign of the way the media generates its own agenda, the need for a quick controversy at the heart of every story.

At school we were bemused by the interest and grateful that this was all, in the main, positive publicity. Imagine the unstoppable effect of a witchhunt or scandal.

Our tiny non-story on a sluggish news day merely resulted in brief embarrassment and numbers of bad photographs. There were phone calls from long-lost relatives. My publishers have undoubtedly received more interest in the book itself (including enquiries from abroad).

As a result of the coverage I also received seven letters from people I had never met. They ranged from requests for the details of the book, to letters of support, to questions about - wait for it - my philosophy of English teaching. One of the seven was an anonymous collection of bizarre photocopies and poems. Alongside the writer's own verses about Diana was a scrawled message to keep up the good work. Newspaper clippings included one about pensioners' rights.

If my 15 minutes of fame generated all this, what about those whose lives are lived entirely in the public eye, or who suddenly find themselves under the media spotlight for negative reasons? Perhaps as the Department for Education and Employment takes over headship training from the Teacher Training Agency they should rewrite the first essential lesson: the media and how to handle it.

Geoff Barton is deputy head at Thurston Upper school, Suffolk. 'Grammar in Context', aimed at 11 to 14-year-olds, is published by Oxford University Press

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