King’s College Chapel
When to the music of Byrd or Tallis,
The ruffed boys singing in the blackened stalls,
The candles lighting the small bones on their faces,
The Tudors stiff in marble on the walls.
There comes to evensong Elizabeth or Henry,
Rich with brocade, pearl, golden lilies, at the altar,
The scarlet lions leaping on their bosoms,
Pale royal hands fingering the crackling Psalter,
Henry is thinking of his lute and of backgammon,
Elizabeth follows the waving song, the mystery.
Proud in her red wig and green jewelled favours;
They sit in their white lawn sleeves, as cool as history.
I usually go on to tell my captive audience about particular challenges the world has thrown up that they will need to face as they prepare to be adult citizens, and what they can do in school to prepare.
I’d decided that I needed to explain what proroguing parliament meant, but ‘twixt writing the slides on Friday and doing the deed on Wednesday I was properly out of date and had to add deselection and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, the message about being kind, polite and respectful didn’t need any adjustment, and I only had to ask one 13-year old to sit up. Who apologised, unlike some.
After that, off to class. Life’s full-on at Tallis so by break they’d already had one lesson and the littlest set off at the charge to get to our inexplicably-numbered rooms. I say ‘floor, block, room’ 20 times. It is a bit of a test.
Everyone seems pleased to see each other apart from a few international-standard grudge-bearers who are taken away to be reset. There is much jumping up and down and hugging, squeaky or semi-manly. It would be unfair to say that it was the same when the staff assembled on Monday. We are generally calmer and cooler and we thought about our future carefully and busily, looking at this year’s plan and working out where the priorities lie (simple enough – maintain post-16 excellence, improve GCSE progress). Expectations, effort, engagement.
Speaking of GCSEs there was an interesting press piece in the holidays about the fee-paying sector’s use of iGCSEs. The ‘i’ stands for ‘international’. This is nothing new, they’ve used them for years. Many state schools used to use them too, if the course suited children better: more coursework, for example, which helps some. I wasn’t too keen, not just because I’m a simple soul but because I think a nation’s children should be educated as one. If we say we’re doing GCSEs then that’s what people expect, not some fancy alternative.
So we’re now in a position where the children of the 7% use different qualifications from the 93% which is troubling. If schools share and transmit knowledge on behalf of society and if shared knowledge is fundamental to democracy and allows children to become useful citizens, shouldn’t they all have the same learning at school? Might that help breach the unbearable divides in our public life?
Directing zippy 11-year olds to their next berth is one thing, but teaching and modelling the values of good citizenship is another. We try very hard to tell children that the key to a successful life is hard work and kindness, but it doesn’t help when political leadership on both sides of the pond is characterised by inherited privilege, bluster and bullying.
I’m re-reading and re-watching Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, a real treat. In the first book he describes the British in India after the fall of Singapore hoping for ‘time, stability and loyalty, which are not things usually to be reaped without first being sown’. Perhaps that’s the government’s problem.
Tallis succeeded through creativity, endeavour and endurance despite the mixed behaviour of the kings and queens he served. As we prepare our children to understand the world and change it for the better let’s hope that we can also give them the skills to recognise the good and reject the rest.