Teatime chat with sir

10th June 2005 at 01:00
It had many of the trappings of an event on the English establishment's summer social calendar.

As the sun beat down on the manicured lawns and the ivy-covered 14th-century stone of Dartington Hall guests exchanged pleasantries with the heir to the throne over cucumber sandwiches.

But it was state-school teachers rather than the sons and daughters of the British aristocracy who were rubbing shoulders not only with Prince Charles but with the great and the good of academia and literature.

The Prince of Wales's fourth education summer school in Devon was always going to be a little different from a run-of-the-mill teacher-training course.

That became immediately obvious when the opening session began with advice on Royal protocol for the 80 English and history teachers attending. Prince Charles was keen to meet them all. They should bow or curtsy and address him as your royal highness, when first introduced, and afterwards as sir.

But despite the deferential introduction, the course often felt like a meeting of a radical revolutionary movement. The cause: to bring down trendy teaching methods and restore subject content to history and English lessons.

Bernice McCabe, course director, resplendent in a scarlet suit, set the tone. "After four years I am more convinced than ever of the need to press forward in challenging some of the current orthodoxies and it is teachers themselves who have the power and expertise to make the difference," said the head of the pound;3,339-a-term North London Collegiate school.

But the emphasis on learning skills in teacher training and methodology at the expense of subject knowledge was not helping. "Generations of teachers are entering the classroom who know about their subjects but don't know their subjects," she said.

"How can our pupils be expected to make a judgement about something they don't understand? How can schools exist in a knowledge vacuum?"

Prince Charles took up the same theme, apologising in advance to his audience for an "interminable diatribe" that he admitted would echo his previous summer-school lambasts against the ills of modern education.

The Government was beginning to reverse its tide of paperwork and initiatives, he acknowledged, but the overall message remained the same.

"Too often nowadays, I fear, the voguish preoccupations of the present are allowed to divert attention from perennially valuable insights drawn from the past," he said.

"Why, for example, has it been suggested in some quarters that people be asked to discuss the use of "texting" and instant messaging and whether such developments require significant change to the teaching of English?"

The Prince was also concerned that children were learning how to learn before they actually knew anything about the "forms of thought and experience which underpin our civilization".

It was a worry that not all of his audience of teachers shared. But they relished the opportunity to focus on their subjects rather than pedagogy and gain inspiration from the likes of Alan Bennett, Lisa Jardine and Seamus Heaney.

With the Prince about to announce some form of teacher-training institute to offer the summer schools, first revealed in The TES last year, and shorter courses on a permanent basis, it is an opportunity that is set to grow.

But current difficulties remain. Paul Grant, head of Robert Clack school, Dagenham, warned there was a price to pay for encouraging pupils to take English literature until they were 16, as opting instead for subjects such as media would result in higher grades.

Lord Melvyn Bragg called for English literature and history to be made compulsory until 16, as 14 year-olds were too young to choose.

But Sir David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, said traditional subjects were not dying out although pupils did not always make the choices people wanted them to.

Limitations on what was taught came from schools rather than the department, he said.

"It is as if there is a mythical person sitting at the centre of government plotting to make the education system dull and boring. I have not yet found that person."

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk


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