Why Prince Charles is abusing his position

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
Will someone please tell the Prince of Wales to keep his nose out of schools? For several years he has been running "education summer schools", mainly for English and history teachers. That he favours traditional approaches to those subjects is no secret. He wants more spelling and punctuation, more Chaucer, Blake and Donne, more narrative in history, more "great events" from the past. Too many children, he has said, leave school without "valuable and essential knowledge and understanding of their national history and heritage".

All this was just about tolerable. Teachers attending the schools were presumably willing volunteers, already in sympathy with the Prince's views. Now he has gone further. Last week, he announced that his Prince's Institute - founded to promote "the importance of in-depth subject knowledge" - would start a "schools programme" to "recognise, promote and disseminate good practice". In other words, he has set himself up as an accrediting body. Schools will have to demonstrate "a clear commitment to the subject specialism" and specify "objectives for improving ... provision". An interview with the department head will follow. After a year, the school must report on progress towards its objectives. It can then use the programme's logo, with the Prince of Wales feathers, on its notepaper and website.

The Daily Mail had no doubt what the Prince was up to. He was launching a "fightback against trendy teaching". Successful schools will be those that "shun fashionable education theories". In a competitive climate, many schools will think it essential to get the Prince's seal of approval. Though he is not accountable to anybody, the Prince will gain direct influence over the curriculum.

I am a history graduate and lifelong reader of traditional English literature. Nevertheless, I find the Prince's approach to these subjects pernicious. His history is a narrative of monarchs, prime ministers, generals and admirals, not of rebellious peasants, Levellers, Chartists, conscientious objectors and anti-imperialists. He takes advice almost entirely from conservative historians such as David Starkey, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts. He views history as an inert body of "knowledge" and has no understanding of how each generation revises history in the light of its own experience (see Yojana Sharma, right).

Again, he doesn't grasp that our appreciation of literature is coloured by contemporary experience; texts that seem important to one generation may seem less so to others. I do not believe The Da Vinci Code is as worthy of study as Pride and Prejudice but, in his rejection of relativism, I believe the Prince betrays an intellectually simple mind. All that leaves aside questions about whether traditional subjects are now the best vehicles for teaching children.

Educational conservatives often try to present their views as "common sense" and accuse people like me of "politicising" the curriculum. In fact, how we should instruct the young has been a political issue since ancient Greece, and there is nothing more political than history teaching. The Prince of Wales is now exploiting the royal brand to support one side in a highly contentious argument. It is a gross abuse of his position.

Peter Wilby, Former editor of the 'New Statesman' and 'The Independent on Sunday'.

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