When 80 English and history teachers were invited to a brainstorming weekend with the Prince of Wales, Andrew Motion, Simon Schama and 14 other leading writers and academics, they couldn't believe their luck. Holed up in the sumptuous surroundings of Dartington Hall, in an idyllic enclave of Devon, they were urged to dress down, leave behind the stresses of the national curriculum and debate the unthinkable with Britain's foremost men and women of letters.
As they washed down their organic roast beef and leaf salad with wine, their royal host explained: "This summer school is intended to inspire all of you teachers of English and history who do value our culture further to enrich your teaching despite the unavoidably narrow straitjacket of the examination system."
Savagely dismissing the "shallow-rooted" education that, he argued, limits the understanding of even our most qualified school leavers, he reassured them: "I believe the past does matter and that history is not bunk."
But last night, as delegates settled down for Mr Schama's lecture on "History in the Digital Age" in the medieval hall's neighbouring Barn Theatre, it was starting to look as if the event might have another, more shadowy, purpose. Murmurings began that, behind the façade of open debate, the agenda was starting to bear the imprint of spurned former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead.
Grandly, if ironically, entitled The Prince of Wales's Education Summer School, the event started life, it is said, as an idea the Prince had 12 years ago, following the success of a similar weekend focusing on Shakespeare. Little more came of it until a year ago, when St James's Palace approached Bernice McCabe, headmistress of the private North London Collegiate girls' school and an outspoken critic of GCSEs and AS-levels. Together with Martin Roberts, headmaster of the respected Cherwell School in Oxford, she set up a steering group, whose members included Sir Stephen Lamport, Prince Charles's then private secretary, Mike Tomlinson, then chief inspector of schools, and Mr Woodhead.
Sensing an opportunity to make good on its promise to welcome open debate on the future of English and history teaching in schools, the Department for Education and Skills trumped up a £15,000 grant. But funding for the event, whose overall cost has not been disclosed, also came from another source: an anonymous benefactor whose identity is known only to a handful of organisers.
Officially, the summer school, open to secondary teachers from across Devon and Cornwall, was nothing more than a "pilot project" for a new style of conference designed to debate the essence and purpose of their subjects. Ms McCabe insists that the speakers were invited by the steering group with no intervention from the palace, though she concedes it was the Prince who "persuaded" them all to accept.
But sceptics sense a hidden agenda. No sooner had the VIP guest list been announced than suspicions were aroused that they had been handpicked to please the Prince. Among them were two frequent house guests at Sandringham, Mr Motion and writer Robert Harris, and Sir John Mortimer, author of Rumpole of the Bailey and, like the Prince, a keen supporter of hunting.
Others suspect an even more "sinister" purpose. Though he did not attend, the involvement of Mr Woodhead in planning the event has led cynics to conclude that his supporters are using it to further his criticisms of Labour's education policies.
Ms McCabe, whose views on many issues are known to chime with Mr Woodhead's, strenuously denies any suggestion that the weekend was designed to propagate a partisan line.
"There's a growing pressure in schools for teachers to concentrate solely on the syllabus so there's little time for them to reflect on the nature and purpose of the subjects," she said. "That's what this weekend was designed to enable them to do. "There's in no sense a political agenda."By royal appointment: the speakers invited to Dartington Hall
By Sholto Byrnes and Oscar Blend
Poet Laureate, runs the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. He writes official poems for royal occasions. The Queen Mother liked her 100th birthday poem so much she wrote him a long letter. He has stayed at Sandringham
Political journalist turned millionaire novelist, married to Gill Hornby, sister of Nick. Camilla's pal Peter Mandelson is godfather to one of his daughters. New Labour royalist, knowledgeable about the arts. Has also stayed at Sandringham.
Conservative columnist who likes to give defenders of liberal values a thrashing. Charles so liked her book, All Must Have Prizes, that he sent it to friends for Christmas. He has invited her to education summits at Highgrove.
Playwright who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. Like Charles, a member of the Order of Merit. Both involved in the rebuilding of a 400-year-old theatre in Gdansk, and they shared a friendship with the late actor, John Thaw.
Aga-saga novelist much loved by the green welly brigade. Fellow inhabitant of Gloucestershire and invited to St James's Palace to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Archers. They have both supported the Haven breast cancer charity.
Broadcaster and the Prince's biographer. It was in an interview with him in 1994 that the Prince first admitted to adultery. Dimbleby has often defended the Prince against criticism. His other job is also organic farming.
Sir John Mortimer
Novelist and Rumpole creator. The Prince and Sir John are respectively president and governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mortimer is a conspicuous supporter of hunting.
British academic who presented A History of Britain for the BBC. They both sat on the committee arranged by the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith to draw up the list of prominent people of the second millennium for the dome.
combative broadcaster and academic once dubbed "the rudest man in Britain". Provided sterling service to the royals with his television series on Elizabeth I and Henry VIII.
highly regarded Oxford don (shortly to take up post in the United States), married to powerful socialite, media networker and former Sunday Express editor Sue Douglas.
author of very successful books on the Second World War. Well-connected, married to Artemis Cooper, granddaughter of Duff and Lady Diana Cooper and daughter of John Julius Norwich.
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