Melvyn Bragg. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Radio: In Our Time; The Essay

Two programmes in one day discussed the era of the Crusades.

In Our Time; The Essay
BBC Radio 4; BBC Radio 3

 

Two programmes in one day discussed the era of the Crusades. On BBC Radio 4, In Our Time (13 February, 9am) had the presenter, Melvyn Bragg, not merely sitting behind what sounded like a mountain of paper but sifting through it with a stapler, Wikipedia weighing heavily on his eyelids, reaching out occasionally with a skeletal hand to grasp a glass of water. Never had the rustling of cross-referencing been so blatant. The reading list for In Our Time often reaches ten books but this was a 14-tome week – unlike the breeze that was the recent show on the Phoenicians, which recommended a paltry six.

The moment one of his guests referred to the Carolingians, Bragg poked his head around his stack and interrupted, “We’re talking about Emperor Charlemagne here, yes? Crowned on Christmas Day, AD 800?” His interlocutor confirmed, “Yes, that’s the one,” and continued more nervously, anticipating the next insistent clarification.

But the guest Miri Rubin, a mellifluously transatlantic-accented professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary University of London, instinctively knew how to deal with the slightly frazzled Bragg (who at one point apologised for “rambling”): praise and affirm. “Great question,” she said, now and again. And: “That’s very true … You’re absolutely right.” Bragg, who rarely fails to respond to this kind of thing, was soon flirting, research forgotten, begging her to translate epigrams. “Can you say it in Latin? Oh, go on!”

Turning from epigrams to hyperbole: on BBC Radio 3, the 18th episode of a 20-part series of The Essay on the “Islamic golden age” (10.45pm) considered the Crusader-slaying sultan Saladin (1138-1193). He was a “tireless holy warrior … easy-going and willing to take requests … a passionate polo player … happy to vigorously dispute matters of faith with Christians”. The historian Jonathan Phillips paused to concede, “All heroes have their flaws airbrushed out.” Yet the show was still rather panting for one about a leader invoked admiringly by Bin Laden for his dogged recovery of Jerusalem in 1187 and compared on account of his piety and sharing of his hardships with his men to Bin Laden by the CIA. One agent’s heavy is an academic’s leading man.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times