In July 1994, I attended Eton for two weeks, along with many other boys and girls from state schools. In those days, it was called the Eton Summer School, and was open to sixth-formers from state schools in the neighbouring counties. Nowadays, it’s called the Universities Summer School, and is open to state school sixth-formers across Britain.
Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience, for many reasons: the beauty of the surroundings, the hot summer weather and the World Cup where we had to support Ireland (The Guardian issued pretend green passports) would have been enough by themselves to lodge it permanently in my mind. But the most wonderful thing of all was, of course, the teaching.
I attended a very ordinary comprehensive school, and it was a revelation to encounter, during this intense fortnight, so many articulate, knowledgeable men who could confidently explain the most complex literary texts, and did not hesitate to do so.
My readers may very well be saying at this point: that’s wonderful for Eton, but what could an ordinary school learn from this? Ordinary schools do not have lots of Oxbridge graduates knocking at their door. And it’s true, widespread school reform cannot depend upon the widespread deployment of exceptional teachers, because they are, well . . . exceptional. Away from the dreaming spires of Eton, what can be done?
My answer lies in the most memorable Eton lesson of all. It was on Twelfth Night. The teacher drew a simple two column table on the whiteboard and explained the opposing ideas which form the conceptual framework of the play, such as discipline versus licence, temperance versus excess, reality versus fantasy.
It was chalk and talk. A simple, traditional lesson in which the teacher explained key concepts and wrote things on the board. That’s all. And it was fantastic. I had rarely experienced such clear, explicit instruction in literature. There had usually been a fuzziness about studying literature compared to this clarity and directness, delivered from the front in a completely uncomplicated, unapologetically traditional style.
I’ve often wondered how much more I could have learned through all my years at comprehensive school if my teachers had done more of this. I’m sure most of them were capable of it. Some of them, especially in maths and science, did it quite often. In fact, the Head of English at my comprehensive school was a Cambridge graduate, and I used to love it when he just talked to us. I wish he had allowed himself to do it more.
There are some things which Eton has which ordinary schools could never have. But every school could have teachers who teach. The battle to achieve this is not financial; what is needed is not more money, but better ideas.