Making Excellence Ordinary in Norfolk

mundesleyThe history of education in Norfolk has had a very personal impact upon me. My mother grew up in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. I have many fond memories of childhood holidays building sandcastles at Mundesley, visiting windmills and rowing around the Broads.

My mother left because she was the only one of her family to go to university. Her father, my Grandad Tony, had left home at fourteen to join the merchant navy, and once he left the sea, he wandered between many jobs on land, including working as a cowherd. There was nothing wrong with his brains, though. When he was convalescing in hospital while my mother was at university, she gave him a copy of War and Peace, and he loved it. He was also a great fan of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and he could certainly give convincing political lectures.

But there were virtually no books in the house when my mother was growing up. She discovered books at school, and she went to university because of the school she attended for sixth form, in Norwich. It had been a girls’ grammar, and had only just started the process of turning into a comprehensive. At the top end, it was still a grammar school, and she had three excellent English teachers who inspired her and encouraged her to apply to Cambridge. It was there that she met my father, who was from a completely different background: the Radices had always been public school, Oxbridge types. If it hadn’t been for those teachers in that school in Norwich, I would not exist. It was because of them that the daughter of a cowherd and the son of a senior Treasury official met and married.

As with so many people, the arguments about academic selection cause me to reflect on how educational policy has affected me personally, and those whom I love. It seems likely that had she lived in later years, when comprehensivisation was complete in Norfolk, my mother would not have gone to Cambridge. But she was the exception in her family. She was lucky. The goal must be to offer such opportunities to everyone.

My mother’s example will stay strongly in my mind as I move to Norfolk next year, and work to provide access to knowledge for every young person who attends the schools in the Inspiration Trust. It should not be an exceptional event for a working class girl to have her mind opened to the wonders of great literature. It should be ordinary. And how are we going to make it ordinary?

We cannot reform education based on what is exceptional. We cannot depend upon a few exceptionally talented, gifted people to effect change on a large scale. We need to build something that will make ordinary classrooms places where ordinary pupils can learn about the great ideas which are the heritage of all humanity. We need to build a coherent curriculum, delivered through methods that immerse the whole class in specific domains of knowledge.

This really is achievable for any school. One of the things that is so attractive about E D Hirsch is his optimism, which is based not on vague ideas but upon the practical experience of helping to create core knowledge schools. He comments in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, that ‘I have witnessed over and over that in a coherent school most teachers can become highly effective’ (p35).

But Hirsch is also clear that a coherent curriculum cannot be implemented without better ideas. Unless those who design and deliver the curriculum are convinced that access to rich, structured subject knowledge is the key to success, and that such knowledge can be transmitted to all pupils, regardless of social background, then they will continue to be bogged down in the failed ideas that have been holding us back for so many decades. They will be hampered by the notion that only a select few are capable of grasping academic knowledge, or that it is tyrannical to impose upon ordinary people the knowledge which the elite has always possessed.

As a teenager in Norwich in the early seventies, my mother didn’t feel oppressed by the traditional teachers who presumed to introduce her to the great writers of the literary canon. On the contrary, she was inspired at the time, and has been grateful ever since. I want to make her proud by giving similar opportunities to the young people growing up in Norfolk today.

(Photo of Mundesley by Philip Halling).

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7 thoughts on “Making Excellence Ordinary in Norfolk

  1. At one point in history, the Left would have little to disagree with in your essay. They (‘we’, in my case, fifty years ago) wanted to make what the bourgeoisie gave to its children, available to all. Now, for the most part, all they want is mediocrity, with some poltically correct indoctrination. What a shame!

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  2. How patronising. Speaking as working class girl who went on to study literature at unversity it is absolutely NOT an unusual event. I am so thankful for the current system. With parents who both left school at 15 and had no money for extra tutors combined with a pretty poor primary experience, I would never in a million years have made it to a grammar school. At 11, despite having a reading age of 16 and devouring literature I was a very poor speller and mathematician. My senior compressive school filled the gaps and gave me wings as schools like it have been doing for millions of working class children since the whole comp/grammar school system was thankfully abandoned.

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  3. Hi Anthony, Congratulations on the post! My grandmother still lives (97!) in Norfolk – she moved with my grandfather from the Scottish islands after WWII to look after the grounds of a monastery; this brought my mum and dad together in Cambridge (where my dad was studying medicine and my mum was studying to be a nurse) in a similarly serendipitous way for me. I’d be delighted to trial / share / swap ideas for a knowledge-led curriculum. I’ve been reshaping our English KS3 through Arthurian legend (Y7), Shakespeare and 19th century literature (Y8) and finally the 20th century (Journey’s End, Animal Farm etc) in Y9.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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