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grades? Or is there more to it than that? Oh please, God, yes, though it may

be a bit late in the day to ask for it to be bigger, wider, more mysterious, even more elusive than grades, because God knows they have become easy to get, and get ing them is no longer an indication that you have been, or now are, educated. If grades were going to mat er – with

teacher performances and school effi cacy to be measured by them, and them alone – then they quickly became all that mat ered. And if that was the case, then we’d bet er make it crystal clear how to get those grades – no doubts, no equivocations – just certainty, to clock up the vital numbers. Numbers were always easy – of course – for maths, and not bad for science, but the arts? History? English lit? Enter stage left, assessment objectives. Hit one of those, tick a box, got it – AO 4 or 3 or 2 or whatever. The content of literature , the great books, the scope of the language, became subservient to the boxes which could be ticked by the weakest candidates and positively had for breakfast by the best. In my own A-level teaching days,

watching ‘The Duchess of Malfi ’ deconstructed into a series of learnable statements about the date of its writing being lined up with the date of the Gunpowder Plot – hence anti-Catholic sentiment stoked by making the arch- villain the Cardinal, not the Duke – I heard a small voice of protest from an experienced English teacher. “You are transforming me,” he

told the exam board rep, “from a teacher qualifi ed to teach Eng lit by two degrees into a Ladybird history teacher.” (No disrespect to the Ladybird books, but I took his point.) Content also went down. I studied

a book called ‘Ten Twentieth Century Poets’ for O level. I actually bought the text recently in an Oxfam shop, just to count the poems – 120. To be known suffi ciently well to be recalled in exam conditions when faced by questions like, “Discuss how Robert Frost, RS Thomas and Edward Thomas deal with nature in


their poems”. Woe betide the candidate who swot ed (such an old-fashioned term) TS Eliot, Yeats and Larkin instead of the three who came up. Tough. At least you had the consolation of having really touched base with more than one giant of twentieth-century poetry – though maybe that would be scant consolation if you knew so much, but the question just never came up. I get that. Less likely to happen in recent times.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to help a young man a few days away from his GCSE in Eng lit. The problem? The poetry, which turned out to be just 15 poems – 15! He had a script of the 15, much scribbled over – here a metaphor, there a rhyme. “Do you know these?” I asked. “Don’t need to – they’ll be on the desk,

a clean copy, of course, in the exam – we’re not allowed to take notes in.” You don’t say. But you have the poems.

No strain on the memory, then. Even without notes, it’s too lit le, it’s too

undemanding, it’s pandering to the lowest possible common denominator, and suddenly I am all for Gove’s plans to make things tougher again. Sweat for success, like athletes. It’s not just ‘get a grade’ time at the funfair – chuck a ball at the coconut, watch it fall – bingo. Education is an introduction to a whole culture, whatever your specialism, and we lose that at our peril. Fifteen poems are not enough. You deserve bet er, more, than that. Of course, we may have lost it already.

There will be English teachers in classrooms today who are slightly hazy about apostrophes and wouldn’t know an adverbial clause if it snapped at their heels. My own daughter got a good degree in English from a Russell Group university with a shortish shelf of texts, including some on Norse literature, but very lit le on Shakespeare because she was too late signing up for that most popular of options. My degree – c. 1970 – left me with a wall of books, some only recently discarded, with my husband still mut ering darkly as we unpacked a case released from deep storage, “Not more blinking poetry

books!” (He didn’t say “blinking”.) Yes, more blinking poetry

and I am proud of it. And I do worry about the dumbing

down, the ‘reduction ad absurdum’ of the new Proms’ series, which will have an evening of themes from sports programmes. I love the music of ‘Ski Sunday’ – but at the Proms? Young people may love it, target audience that they are, so that’s a win. But surely we need to reach young people with the good, hard stuff , not keep them forever fossilised in juvenile, easy taste, not rewarded with an A* in English lit for a passing acquaintance with 15 fairly easy poems. A local paper in Wales last week

advertised “Books of suitable readings and prayers for funerals – call to view our selection!” For the big occasions – birth, death, marriage – we need words. They lie about in centuries of Eng lit, but now – who knows what treasure there is? Local paper to the rescue – here are the lollipops, easy on the eye, and the tongue – not going to stick in any modern possibly ill-educated throat. But I recently at ended a funeral with

an order of service fat er than normal with ‘refl ections’ the dead man, a leading headmaster in his day, would have known and loved and chosen for his fi nal service. The selection included pieces from Becket and Joyce, Cavafy and Donne and Herbert, and the music for the anthems was by Brahms. Not a trace of ‘My Way’. What access to a wide and deep culture

did this man have? What roads had he travelled that today we consider not useful, interesting, valuable, testable, assessable for our young, stuck with the simple, do-able, prosaic and ordinary rat les of very simple men? In brief, the roads of a classical education, Latin and Greek and English literature and fi ne music, and many things we are fast losing, discarding, chucking away in pursuit of easy grades and an education not worth the name. And me? I stand before you

as guilty as any of us in British education today. Reader, it happened on my shift, and whatever I did to stop it, it wasn’t enough. iE

Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association W: www.boarding.

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