Transcendental dedication

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Kate Clanchy meets a teacher whose enlightened approach to poetry allows his pupils to rise above the rest

The taxi driver is reluctant to believe the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment exists. "In Skelmersdale?" he asks. "Are you sure?" Even when we arrive at the modest converted barn he looks at the structure dubiously, as if it might suddenly levitate. "Looking for enlightenment then?" he asks, checking my change.

I am, in a way. I want to know how Cliff Yates, deputy head and sole English teacher at the 100-strong school, manages to coax such excellent poetry from his students. Quirky, varied and visceral - some apparently casual pieces of vernacular, others sophisticated and formal - the poems have won dozens of awards in every writing competition in Britain. His pupils have also been TES Young Poets more often than those from any other school. And, most mysteriously, these poems are not written by small children, but by teenagers - often 15 and 16-year-olds.

It might be something in the air, I suppose. I put my head in the door and take a good sniff. But the place smells - well, just like school - wet duffle coats and mud with just a whiff of essential oils. It looks more or less like a school too, a small village school - except the children are weirdly polite, and portraits of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - the same bearded face that beguiled the Beatles - look down from the walls.

The headteacher, Derek Cassells, though, is spookily sure the answer to my quest lies with the Maharishi, and not Cliff Yates. The students, he says, meditate morning and evening and thus their minds are clear. This allows their creativity to flower. It even says so in the prospectus.

The more time I spend in the school, though, the less I believe him. The Maharishi School is strongly concerned - partly, probably, because of attitudes such as that of the taxi driver - to appear ordinary and accessible, teaching the full national curriculum, achieving good results, imposing a uniform. And while the children speak enthusiastically about their meditation, they are also streetwise and outgoing. Transcendental meditation is TM, and the Science of Creative Knowledge is SCI. Children love it or yawn through it, according to their taste.

Cliff Yates doesn't mention meditation - even though he has dedicated his life to teaching at the Maharishi, and sends his three children there. Nor has he Coleridge's "wild eyes and floating hair". He wears a suit, and has a meticulously ordered desk and astonishingly clean teeth. Any bard business, would, I assume, be too mystical and mystifying, and demystifying poetry-writing is the meaning of Cliff Yates's life - his mission.

He came late to education - "hating school", leaving early, and taking the arduous route of night classes and access course to university and an MA. He has brought to his teaching a personal love and knowledge of poetry, and was startled to find that not all teachers shared this - that some, in fact, are afraid of the stuff."At my first school, while on teaching practice, I used the Walt Whitman poem 'This is Just to Say'. The class's regular English teacher looked at it and said: "If that was handed to me as a piece of homework, I'd give it four out of 10."

He started teaching, looked around, and decided the relaxed atmosphere in the art department was the one he most admired. "But the art teachers were experts. They could draw and paint, and physically help children with what they were doing. I didn't know how to do that because I didn't write myself. British universities teach you criticism, not writing."

So he started to teach himself to write. Fortunately, he lives near enough to Huddersfield to attend some of Peter Sansom's legendary workshops at The Poetry Business - and to work with the likes of Ian Macmillan, one of the most generous spirits in modern poetry. "It was electric. I went to a workshop and wrote a poem, there and then, and really felt I'd done something," he says.

Immediately, he started applying the workshop principle to his own teaching - writing with his students, creating poems suggested by their experiences, making writing a central activity. And even before he left his Cheshire comprehensive for the Maharishi, he had his first result. "Two pupils in my fourth-year class of 30 won prizes in the BBC Poetry of War competition, and there were only 10 winners nationally."

The Maharishi, though, has allowed him to apply these principles to the whole school. Mr Yates starts by holding workshops for the top primary classes. Then, as the only English teacher in the senior school, he makes writing a part of the students' regular teaching until they leave at 16. "We do workshops once a week or a fortnight. Of course, there's the national curriculum, but there are so many ways to integrate poetry into that," he says.

Watching Cliff Yates teach a group of 12-year-olds, it is easy to see the importance of this everyday approach. The children are working in a classroom adorned with their own work - often with national prizes attached. There are stacks of books in the corners - standard texts, such as Roger McGough's Strictly Private, but also quirky anthologies, for Mr Yates reads as well as writes with his pupils. "I like to show them all sorts of things, whatever I'm reading - American poetry, Wallace Stevens, Frank O'Hara, and the traditional stuff."

And although Mr Yates's lessons are imaginative - he has brought in an old camera and is asking the students to imagine the strange negatives it might contain - it is not outside the range of most classroom teachers. Nor is the formula of the lesson - activity, working time with teacher help, class sharing, feedback. He likes to stress the availability of his sources - "things from Peter Sansom's book Writing Poetry, images and postcards, imitating forms and other people's poems - just things I think of, or learn in workshops, " he says.

But most unusual is the confidence with which he delivers the lesson and the enthusiasm with which the children receive it. Their ideas are wildly different, and they have the confidence not to ask, as so many children do, "Is that okay?" They shape their poems in unique ways and work together, comparing, criticising and encouraging, with startling maturity.

Seriousness about writing in general and poetry in particular seems to run through the school. Older pupils discuss their writing and explain that they prefer reading with the sort of intensity usually reserved for music or the football results.

Football, I realise as I wait for the return taxi, is a good analogy. Great sporting schools have a culture in which excelling at sport is paramount. At the Maharishi, Cliff Yates has created an environment in which reading and writing poetry are prestigious, and loved, as well as being ordinary activities. There is no mystical formula, although teachers must have time to write, and perhaps the courses to help them do so. Mr Yates would love, above all, to teach such a course.

"Found what you were looking for then?" the taxi driver asks. I have. And he, as I remind him, has at least found the road to enlightenment.

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