The royal perspective

Teachers at Prince Charles's summer school this year were told that pupils should be taught about the British Empire. Is the Prince of Wales pushing his conservative agenda, or stirring up a legitimate debate? Nicholas Pyke reports

It looked more like a smart wedding than a teachers' conference. Around 100 smartly dressed guests were respectfully gathered in the shaded light of a white marquee, specially erected in the grounds of an expensive hotel. Outside, the rain was pouring, but it didn't really matter. After all, the speaker was the heir to the British crown, and he was warming to his theme: the destruction of Britain's "cultural, linguistic and historical habitat". Blaming experts and educationists with their fashionable ideas, Prince Charles said that we Britons are growing up culturally disinherited, ignorant of our collective past. The great names of English literature have been reduced to a series of simple exercises, while their works lie gathering dust in the stockroom, unopened.

Welcome to Dunston Hall in Norfolk, and the second Prince of Wales Education Summer School for English and history teachers. This is in-service training Highgrove-style, a course of professional development so simultaneously high-powered and plush that nothing like it has been seen since, well, last year's Prince of Wales Education Summer School in Devon. There is every sign that the event is now a fixture.

First, it was architecture that got Charles into hot water; then it was his strong views on agriculture, the destruction of the hedgerows, and the menace of GM crops. Now, education has been added to the portfolio of princely controversies. Is the heir to the throne attempting to "interfere" in government policy, as some claim? Are his summer schools a legitimate forum for teacherly debate, or just a reactionary schmooze - traditionalist propaganda made more digestible with quantities of salmon and shiraz?

Prince Charles is accused of interfering whenever he opens his mouth, so it is not hard to find critics of the summer schools. The historian Tristram Hunt has been among the most prominent, publicly accusing the Prince of using them as a Trojan Horse for the views of his "circle of conservative cronies". To criticise "fashionable" educationists, he says, is to attack "progressive" educationists. "The point I'd make is that it was unrepresentative to have the intellectual feel of the summer school led by [conservative historians such as] Dr David Starkey and Professor Niall Ferguson. I have enormous admiration for them, but there's another story to be told.

"Where was Eric Hobsbawm or Patrick Collinson? Prince Charles's comments come within a broader social and political agenda. I think the debate is good and the summer school is good. But there's an intellectual context that is just not agenda-free."

It is certainly true that some of Prince Charles's occasional sounding-boards on education - Chris Woodhead and the columnist Melanie Phillips, for example - do have conservative views. Conspiracy theorists will be further encouraged to learn that the fee-paying sector, in particular the North London Collegiate School, has a major role in organising the event.

There is no doubting the level of influence at work. The Prince of Wales raised most of the money for the four-day event through anonymous donors, but the conference was also supported with cash from the Department for Education and Skills, said to be £15,000. The opening ceremonies were watched by Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and Sue Horner, the QCA's head of English. Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Brighton College and biographer of John Major, now writing about Tony Blair, was there briefly, along with Melanie Phillips. The closing session featured a panel of senior figures from Ofsted, the QCA and the Teacher Training Agency, not to mention the director general for schools at the DfES itself.

Last year's royal summer school at Dartington Hall has already made its mark. A well-publicised debate on the history curriculum, which saw secondary courses criticised for lacking narrative structure and concentrating on "Hitler and the Henrys", seems to have inspired the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, to say that he wants a review of the subject. This time, Clarke turned up in person, and he went so far as to suggest that the initiative should in future be extended to teachers of other subjects, science in particular. (He used the occasion to defend his - almost certainly misreported - views on history with an impassioned denial that he had ever denigrated medieval historians.)

Nothing and no one, however, could outdo the list of speakers, whatever their intellectual background. On the historical side, Antony Beevor, the author of Stalingrad, lined up with the Tudor historian and broadcaster Dr David Starkey, Andrew Roberts, Michael Wood, the author and presenter of BBC2's In Search of Shakespeare, and Professor Niall Ferguson, the economic historian.

English teachers heard talks by the thriller writer PD James and the Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, who discussed his sources of inspiration. Professor Christopher Ricks surprised the audience with a detailed practical criticism of a Bob Dylan song, pronouncing him a genius. Susan Hitch from Oxford University spoke about the teaching possibilities thrown up by Anglo-Saxon poetry. Professor Simon Schama, visiting from New York, skirted dangerous territory with a lecture on visual literacy and the propaganda of battle, using Picasso's Guernica, Goya's The Shootings of 3 May, and Marat Assassinated by the French Revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David.

"We were free to say whatever we wanted," said Professor Ferguson, whose speech in favour of discussing the imperial past - both triumphs and atrocities - helped to feed the suspicions that the conference was some sort of set-up. For what it's worth, the St James's press office denied in strong terms any suggestion that Prince Charles is heading a "campaign" for imperial studies, or that there is any agenda beyond wanting to encourage debate.

The four-day course included many hours of workshop discussion, culminating in a series of recommendations about how English and history teaching could be improved. Put crudely, English teachers want more autonomy and a different assessment regime, while history teachers need more space in the timetable and a serious debate about the structure of exam courses. But it was the speakers who left the strongest impression. "It's the first in-service course I've been on that's worthy of the profession," said one head of English, summing up the views of most. A chance to spend time discussing their subjects openly, free from the daily grind, was as invaluable as it was unprecedented, they said.

As Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University points out, most teacher conferences are exceedingly dull events at which a captive audience is shown "how to tick 500 boxes". While he disagrees with the Prince of Wales's view of the curriculum, suggesting that English and history courses are already crammed with traditional literature and historical facts, he defends the prince's right to run a stimulating event. As he attended last year, Professor Wragg has more perspective than most.

"I think anyone's entitled to run summer schools," he says. "Teachers are smart. Teachers can make of them what they will. It's a proper use of his influence.

"The two things that he's done that are the most impressive are the Prince's Trust and these summer schools. They show that there's a role that he can play very effectively, one that no one else can."

How tests may be damaging the teaching of English

The regime of SATs tests for 14-year-olds could damage English lessons and produce "the wrong sort of curriculum", according to the head of the Government's Teacher Training Agency. Faced with vehement criticism from delegates at the second Prince of Wales Summer School, Ralph Tabberer, the TTA's chief executive, agreed that the tests could leave schools with a syllabus that fails to achieve its objectives.

The tests at Key Stage 3 have been a long-running source of controversy. Schools complain that the subject has been reduced to a series of technical exercises, leaving pupils no time to read whole books.

"There needs to be some rethinking about the balance in the curriculum between the professional [needs] and the assessment," Mr Tabberer told the audience at Dunston Hall hotel in Norwich. Otherwise, he said, pupils would get "the wrong sort of curriculum even though it says the right things".

Speaking on behalf of the English delegates, Stephen Miles, the head of English at Haygrove School in Bridgwater, Somerset, told a panel of government officials that the assessment regime was driving down teaching standards. He picked on a question from this year's SATs, which quoted an extract from Treasure Island by RL Stevenson and asked: "In paragraph two, how is the importance of the third pine tree emphasised?"

Mr Miles said: "For many people here, assessment of that sort, which characterises English as literacy and literacy as about deconstructing and decoding text, is the moment that we lose the battle to create lifelong learners, because everything that makes reading worthwhile has been stripped from the process...

"Defining English in a Gradgrindingly factual manner, as a dourly objective subject, where the evidence of pupils' learning can be reduced to a sentence that can easily be marked by a non-specialist (possibly even by a monkey) with a mark scheme, is the biggest obstacle to pupils' experience of a subject that is challenging, rigorous and coherent."

The conference demanded more autonomy for teachers at Key Stage 3, saying that there was little chance of steering a coherent course through the subject without it.

Sue Horner, the head of English for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, defended the test question, suggesting that it was part of a "scaffolded" approach. The overall effect of any literary work, she said, comprises small-scale devices of the sort used when Stevenson describes the pine tree. When, earlier in the week, the Education Secretary Charles Clarke was asked for his views on the Key Stage 3 English tests, he said the issue was "important" but refused to comment further.

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