Where pupils dare not perch

18th March 2005 at 00:00
I commend to all weary trudgers in the educational byways the tape of the first People Like Us series on BBC Radio 4, written by John Morton.

The first programme, featuring Chris Langham as the hapless reporter Roy Mallard, is "The Headmaster": a straight-faced mock-documentary in which our hero spends a day in a comprehensive school, following the dim head Mr Peacock and his disaffected and mildly hysterical staff.

I am particularly fond of the conference with the parents of one 15-year-old delinquent whose "challenging behaviours" include assault, trouserless arson, drug-dealing in maths class and supergluing the music master to the harp.

"In the end" reports the breathless Mallard, "it was decided to tackle the problem in stages. First the boy would be supervised at break times and lunch. Then he would see an educational psychologist. Then he would be expelled." If you haven't heard this cruel, tone-perfect take on schoolspeak, get hold of a copy.

But as I was driving home the other day with that tape playing, something new occurred to me. The first subtle joke in the programme is the name of the school: the Richard III school.

But actually, come to think of it, why aren't there more schools honouring the late Richard Plantagenet? I could find only one: an infant school in Leicester, more honour to it. Otherwise, every kind of Edward, George and Elizabeth seems to be commemorated, but not poor old Crookback.

Perhaps school authorities are afraid parents would associate the offer of a place at Richard III High with a willingness to shut awkward children in towers and suffocate them with pillows (a strategy which, as far as I know, has not featured even in the briskest of Ms Kelly's mini-manifestos).

Yet why not? Richard III's reputation has been washed clean for decades.

Shakespeare, following the lead of Henry VII's Tudor spin doctors and their willing dupes such as Thomas More and Polydore Vergil, immortalised the myth of the hunchbacked monster king.

Although the recent revisionists - notably Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time - may have painted the last Plantagenet as improbably saintly, it is well established that he was, if anything, unusually humane for his times and gentle on his enemies. He was loyal to his brother Edward and had a reputation for fair dealing when he represented him in the North.

His claim to the throne was legal under Titulus Regius, though Henry then destroyed that document; the campaign against Richard's reputation in subsequent years was all about legitimising the seizing of his followers'

wealth and bolstering the Tudors. It is a perfect example of the old saw that history is written by the winners.

What more educational, what more inspiring name and theme for a secondary school? Imagine the first assembly, the first PHSE class, the induction ceremony for newcomers. Teachers, warriors for truth and upholders of Fact, would thrillingly and gorily tell the story of a man born in a difficult time, who did his best amid familial upheaval and base treachery close to home.

They would invite the children to consider a man whose reputation was assassinated, who was accused of murdering children no older than they and became a byword for brutality. Then they would tell the story of the scholars - from 1646 onwards - who began to question the reputation; they would praise the painstaking uncovering of what was fact and what was fiction, and record how by Bishop John Morton's influence the great and sainted Thomas More was taken in and became a low spin doctor with the rest.

They would be invited to consider how the rest of his reputation helped to make More the accepted source, even though he was a small child when the alleged crimes happened and heard only the gossip and the politically expedient lies.

Finally, as the bloodstained old tale fired up the children's innate sense of justice and reputation, the teachers would hammer home the importance of checking dates and timelines and questioning facts, and the dangers of regarding all old history - the way children often do - as having happened at vaguely the same time.

You could have Richard's life acted out for the newcomers by a group of proud seniors, raised on the tale of their school's patron; then finally, as the lights dim over Bosworth field and a thrilling blast of trumpets echoes round the assembly hall over a recording of Sir Ian McKellen reading something resonant, you could give them all a school goblet of Ribena representing malmsey, and invite them to drink a toast to research, truth and justice and the exhilarating qualities of education.

It would, at least, give them something to tell their parents when they ask: "What did you do on your first day at school?"

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