I’m glad I learnt to read Shakespeare at school rather than a balance sheet

Richard Branson has recommended dropping "irrelevant" topics from the curriculum

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The Independent Online

Since leaving school over a decade ago, I have not once used a quadratic equation, the vocative case or a Bunsen burner. Oxbow lakes, Redox reactions and the inventor of the Spinning Jenny rarely come up in day-to-day life. I almost never grow broad beans in jam jars, vault a wooden horse or use poster paint. Yet a significant part of my life has been spent learning all of these things.

Was it a waste of time? Richard Branson seems to think so. This week, the entrepreneur, who left Stowe at 15 and is now worth about £2.6bn, suggested that pupils should be taught about Tesco and Apple rather than trigonometry and the ancients. “It’s important people do learn the difference between gross and net, and how Tesco, Virgin or Apple works,” he told the BBC. “Some things people study at school are not particularly relevant when they leave.” There is nothing wrong with this idea – perhaps if we had spent more time on gross vs net and less on the inner workings of a volcano, the annual tax return wouldn’t be such a horror. Although, I somehow doubt it.

What is wrong is the suggestion that business should be a pillar of the curriculum because it is more “relevant”. Certainly, learning about Virgin’s profit margins is handy if you know, aged 11, that you want to be Richard Branson when you grow up, but what if you have no interest in or aptitude for becoming an entrepreneur? What if you want to be a nurse, or a teacher, or a sculptor?

The mixed reaction to Michael Gove’s new curriculum this week proved one thing: you can’t please all of the pupils all of the time. But you can try, by offering the widest range of skills and knowledge and allowing them the pleasure of learning for learning’s sake before sending them out into the rat race. There is a lot of life to live after school – plenty of time for wrangling with the realities of bottom lines, bills and Tesco. Knowing about photosynthesis or the odd line of Shakespeare might not be relevant, if by that one means lucrative, but the personal enrichment it brings is immeasurable.

Giving a little Mor-mon

You can take the show out of Broadway, but you can’t take Broadway out of the show. At the The Book of Mormon this week, the funniest, flashiest new musical in years, I was struck by some cultural differences – in the programme. The British cast and crew listed their credits in the usual dry way, but the Americans gave a little extra. Take co-director Trey Parker whose biography ends, “It was a long-time dream of Trey’s to write a musical for Broadway. Trey is originally from Conifer, California”. Others express eternal gratitude to friends and family, regret that their two kids won’t be allowed to see the foul-mouthed show “for a long time” or, in the case of the two leading men, namecheck “Mom, Dad and Jeffrey” and “Wally the dog”, respectively. There is something quite nice about learning a little titbit about the real people behind the characters you have just spent the evening with. I hope the trend might catch on in the West End.

Ketchup with design

The nominations for the Designs of the Year awards have been announced, and it’s a bumper crop. The Shard, the Olympic cauldron and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 are all shortlisted, so too The Barbican’s Rain Room and the costumes for Anna Karenina. In such exalted company, one humble invention stands out – the Liquiglide Ketchup Bottle. Designed by Dave Smith and the Varanasi Research Group at MIT, it features an edible, slippery coating which stops condiments sticking to the side. The market for sauces is worth $17 billion, says Smith. “And if all those bottles had our coating, we estimate that we could save about one million tons of food from being thrown out every year.” Not to mention all that precious time wasted thwacking, shaking and waiting. I think we have a winner.