28.04.1991

Who needs Shakespeare?

Who needs Shakespeare?
 
Lynette Burrows suggests that the Prince was too much the patrician last week
 
THERE is something about Prince Charles's speech concerning the lack of Shakespeare in the curricu­lum of some schools that strikes a chord. It is faintly reminiscent of that equally innocent remark of Marie Antoi­nette's about the need for peasants to eat cake if they cannot get bread. The patrician assumption behind it is that parents, or even all teachers, have a choice in the matter of whether children should be properly educated or not. The truth is that in many schools that choice does not exist and, indeed, parents there would be most relieved if Shakespeare were the only thing their children were not being taught.
 
It is a tribute to what Solzhenitsyn called the censorship of fashion and the intellectual stranglehold exercised by those whom the Prince called "educa­tionalists" that even he had to be cir­cumspect to the point of opacity in deal­ing with the subject.
 
He laid out the problem fairly suc­cinctly — only he started at the wrong end; it was like the story of the chauffeur who went to meet his employer at the station and told him that the family dog was dead. Further inquiries revealed that the dog had died as a result of a chain of accidents, which included the destruction of the man's house and the demise of his entire family.
 
So the Prince began by deploring the lack of Shakespeare taught to children in school as well as the lack of poetry and of the Bible. Then he went on to describe a catalogue of horrors, which included hostile, indifferent pupils and intimi­dated teachers who were forced to teach the children any superficial rubbish that might buy their acquiescence.
 
Surely the most important part of the Prince's message was that one in seven children is leaving primary school func­tionally illiterate, a fact that makes their lack of knowledge of the refinements of the language seem relatively unimportant. In that context it is hardly surpris­ing if many are leaving school without a knowledge of the classics when 40 per cent are leaving without any educational qualification at all. It is also little use the Prince sighing over the decline in the system of apprenticeship when a propor­tion of the most likely candidates for it, by his own estimation, would not even know how to calculate the number of paving slabs necessary to lay a path.
 
So what is it that has really gone wrong with our education system that even the heir to the throne dares not mention for fear of incurring the wrath of those shadowy figures he referred to, who pull so many of the strings in educa­tion? Here one has to move back to a time, only 20-odd years ago, when we were proudly told that primary educa­tion was "the jewel in the crown" of our education system. And indeed it was.
 
Classrooms were bright with the chil­dren's work in science, history, nature-study, art and English. We were taken on countless trips to observe orderly and productive classrooms in even the roughest parts of London, where enthu­siastic, well-behaved children were learning in an environment that anyone who loved teaching would be happy to join. In those not-so-distant days one never heard of schools being vandalised or burnt down by the pupils; of teachers being sworn at and attacked; and, even more shocking somehow, of classroom pets being killed.
 
But in those days they had a discipline structure that worked but which has now been dismantled. This structure was based upon the mildest form of cor­poral punishment, which we, somehow allowed ourselves to be coerced into pre­tending was the most shocking thing in the world — arrant nonsense.
 
A report from the Gulbenkian Founda­tion published last week showed that one in six children now goes in serious fear of bullying at school. Injuries and damage in schools have reached record and disastrous proportions, but still the disingenuous academics who produced the mess can suggest only ever more bureaucratic and expensive solutions to the problems they have created.
 
Far from there being a shortage of good teachers, official statistics tell us that there are now more trained teachers who have got out of teaching than are employed in it, and that, of those leaving the state sector to teach elsewhere, three-quarters go into private schools where they earn less but, at least, can teach in a civilised atmosphere.
 
The reality is that fashionable theo­ries about discipline have not worked, and that, with the best will in the world, the civilising business of teaching Shakespeare, or any other serious sub­ject, cannot be undertaken unless the teacher can first command the respect and attention of the pupils.
 
Prince Charles is right; it does take courage to fly in the face of a fashion that so-called experts have created and built their reputations on, and which they will, therefore, defend to the death. However, it was once the function of princes to raise their standard over a battleground and, however symboli­cally, that is what is needed now. In using his influence to counter the power of architects Prince Charles helped to rout one group of arrogant professionals who had made the lives of ordinary people intolerable. If only he could do the same in education, we should all have cause to be grateful to him; not least those who are children now and would like to be educated adults when he is King.