A right royal fuss in the classroom

Prince Charles's courses for English and history teachers have given many a new love for their subject. But critics see evidence of a right-wing agenda, reports Sarah Cassidy
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A love of literature has become the love that cannot speak its name for many English teachers," says Stephen Miles, head of English at Haygrove School in Somerset. "It might be something that you do behind closed doors but if an inspector arrived you'd put on a very different sort of lesson."

Teachers say that is beginning to change. They credit the summer schools that have been run by the Prince of Wales for English and history teachers for reinspiring them with a passion for their subject.

The summer schools may be dogged by the perception that they are simply glamorous events where Prince Charles's celebrity friends can sip champagne on manicured lawns. But the teachers who have attended over the past five years argue that the events have transformed their teaching by filling an important gap in their training - rediscovering a love of their subject.

As well as renewing his attack on modern teaching methods, the Prince this month launched a new education charity with Cambridge University - backed by £50,000 of government funding - which will expand the summer schools and run training to refresh the subject knowledge of English and history teachers.

However, the initiative has proved extremely controversial and has prompted fears that the Prince and the conservative thinkers of his Highgrove set are attempting to skew what goes on in the classroom.

"The single biggest thing the summer schools have done is give people courage and confidence," says Miles. "In English, a passion for literature is almost always the reason why people go into teaching in the first place.

"English teachers can feel very distant from the reasons why they came into the profession. Summer schools are an excellent way of getting them back in touch with their love of literature."

For many, Miles included, this has already seen a revolution in the teaching of Shakespeare.

Summer schools delegates have returned to their classrooms fired with new determination to teach entire Shakespeare plays to 14-year-olds and reject pressure to dumb down by only covering the two scenes that are required for the Government's national tests.

So-called difficult authors such as Chaucer, John Donne and William Blake have also made a comeback in many classrooms after the summer schools. But it is the surprising impact on the content of the school curriculum which has provoked the furore.

While English classrooms have seen the reintroduction of authors of the classics, history has produced a renaissance in the study of the British empire, prompting fears that the Prince's Highgrove set is promoting a traditionalist right-wing agenda.

More than 30 years after the history of the British empire was dropped from the curriculum as irrelevant, it is making a startling comeback in comprehensives across the country.

Scott Baker, 31, head of history and politics at Robert Clack school in Dagenham, east London, is one of many teachers who was inspired to introduce lessons on the British empire as a result of his experiences at Prince of Wales summer schools.

"The summer schools have had a big impact both on what we teach and the way we teach it," says Baker.

All 14-year-olds at his large multi-ethnic comprehensive now study the British empire after a shake-up of the curriculum since Baker attended his first summer school in 2003, where he heard Professor Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, speak.

Ferguson, who is currently presenting his new series, The War of the World, on Channel 4, describes the Empire as "the big story of British history in the modern period". Teaching British history without it, he said, was like "Hamlet without the prince".

Baker went away inspired. "Like a lot of schools the British Empire was not something we addressed," he says. "It's an issue that arouses a lot of political sensitivity and a lot of teachers don't feel confident in tackling it."

St James's Palace has had to deny repeatedly claims that Prince Charles is mounting a personal campaign for the return of imperial or Commonwealth studies. But the Prince's choice of speakers has sparked mutterings of a plot by right-wing historians intent on changing the way history is taught.

The historian Tristram Hunt has been among the most prominent critics of the summer schools, accusing the Prince of using them as a Trojan horse for the views of his "circle of conservative cronies".

He has argued that the conservative historians who are invited to speak are not representative of the subject as a whole, warning that the events are "just not agenda-free".

Sean Lang, secretary of the Historical Association, agrees that the narrow range of historians who addressed the events had caused concern. "I agree that there's a genuine issue about who is invited to speak there. It is by invitation and people such as David Starkey, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts tend to be invited.

"Niall Ferguson has got a very right-wing, very assertive and triumphalist view of the empire and I think it would be an idea for there to be more of a debate around the history presented. So if there's a feeling that some people with different views have been excluded I think it is important that they are invited to join the debate."

Dr Jerry Brotton, lecturer in renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, says: "The problem is that Charles is basically working from a version of history that he learnt 35 years ago.

"If it's always people like Starkey and Niall Ferguson who are invited to speak, then this is the version you are going to get.

"Universities have a problem with students arriving with huge gaps in their knowledge and skills. But I don't think some notion of tradition and heritage is going to help."

But Baker laughingly rejects claims of a pro-Empire campaign. "I would totally dispute any suggestion of that," he says. "Teachers have taken the lead on how these ideas are introduced in the classroom and it is certainly not part of a right- wing conspiracy."

"We tackle the topic in a very multi-ethnic way. I think that as long as you approach it in a warts and all way you shouldn't have any problem. It's full of gripping stories and is probably the most successful unit we teach."

English teachers' leaders are also sceptical about the tone of the events. Ian McNeilly, a spokesman for the National Association for the Teaching of English, welcomes the chance for teachers to "recharge their batteries" but argues that the Prince's criticism of modern teaching approaches is "way off the mark".

"Prince Charles is overlooking the excellent practice that goes on in classrooms up and down the country and the ambition shown by English teachers generally. I've taught Chaucer to Year 7 pupils, done comparative studies of John Donne and Andrew Marvell with Year 10 and plenty more besides.

"If he thinks we actively seek to 'dumb down' or 'culturally disinherit' our pupils, he's way off the mark. It's not just a question of philosophies of pedagogical approach - there are a lot more factors at work in schools than perhaps Prince Charles realises.

"As English teachers, we try our best to foster reading for pleasure as well as making 'the classics' accessible, but its very difficult to achieve within today's overcrowded and over-assessed curriculum."

"It would be great if the Prince could lend his political weight to creating more autonomy for teachers of English in schools up and down the country."

The expansion of the Prince's scheme, which has attracted more than 500 teachers to take part since 2002, will see it grow to offer a major residential course each year as well as in-service training at schools around the country.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, backs the royal initiative, describing the Prince's summer schools as being "so beneficial to teachers".

But eyebrows have been raised over why £50,000 of taxpayers' money is funding the expansion - along with a donation from an "anonymous benefactor".

The Department for Education and Skills refuses to comment, referring questions to the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), which supplies the funding.

Liz Francis, of the TDA, which is responsible for teacher training, also dodges the funding issue, saying only that it is "the chief executive's decision".

But she argues that subject-specific training for teachers is still scarce and that the agency can benefit from being a partner to the Prince's scheme and learning from the initiative.

"We are supporting a range of approaches with our time and funding," she says. "We will be evaluating the scheme to see if there are lessons that we can apply to other subjects and methods of training."

Meanwhile, the teachers who attend the courses are just happy to be able to get some training that's relevant to their subject.

Kate Swann, 26, an English specialist in her third year of teaching at Gumley House Roman Catholic Convent School, in Hounslow, Middlesex, attended her first Prince of Wales summer school this year.

"It was just such an inspiration," she says. "It reminded me why I had gone into the profession in the first place."