In all the endless talk about school examinations I have never heard this important point made. It is that ever improving school exam results are the nearest thing yet to a panacea for universal happiness. Just notice how many people they please. Pupils, or students as everyone calls them these days, like getting A grades rather than Bs and Cs. Parents like that too. Headmasters and headmistresses can boast, year after year, of record results, and universities of rising entry standards. Governments like them most of all, because better results prove, of course, that standards are rising and that they made them rise. Only two groups grouse about them — top universities (which have to differentiate somehow between candidates with rows of A grades), and those spoil-sports who point out that ever improving grades might not mean that students and teachers are getting cleverer every year, but that standards are getting lower.
If I were secretary of state for education I would solve the problems of too many A grades and of odious comparisons with past years with one master stroke. All you actually need grades for is to show which people are capable of going to which universities. They don’t actually need to compare this year’s performance with last year’s or with any other year’s. All they need to know is who was best this year, who was next best and who was not so good. Why not just give A grades each year to the top 10 per cent of those who pass in each subject, B grades to the next 15 per cent, C grades to the next 25 per cent and so on? This is so simple and so obvious that I suppose it must be wrong. Or is it that we prefer to make things difficult? I think it was the Habsburg bureaucracy which had as its motto, ‘Why simple if it can be made complicated?’ Whoever it was, we seem now to be willing pupils. The new English disease is OBOE: the Over-Bureaucratisation Of Everything. It is spreading like an epidemic. Anyone who tries to run anything knows that ‘initiatives’, bureaucracy and regulatory legislation will slow them to a crawl.
For instance, when the remote, upland primary school in rural Lancashire, next to which my brother-in-law has lived for 30 years and to which his children once went, asked if he could help with the after-school club, he said he would rather have nothing to do with children or raffia but would do the accounts if they liked. To open a separate bank account — with the bank with which he had banked for 45 years — required a visit to the bank, a 20-minute interview and documentary proof that he was who he said he was and who the bank knew him to be. The school then gave him a bundle of forms to fill in and told him that a police check would be necessary. A lesser man would have decided that the joke had gone far enough and that the school would have to find another treasurer for after-school activities. It will be an incalculable loss when this sort of nonsense kills off, as it surely must, the voluntary help on which we have always been able to rely.
Some houses in Oxford and Windsor are sprouting blue plaques like London’s to commemorate famous people who lodged there. National Poetry Day made me wish some society or body would also put up poetry in the places to which it refers. Poster poems and poems in the Underground have been a success. Edinburgh has a few lines on a brass plate from ‘Learie the Lamplighter’ outside 17 Heriot Row, R.L. Stevenson’s childhood home. Could we not add ‘Daffodils’ beside Ullswater, some Hardy round Dorchester, Betjeman in Cornwall and Surrey, Byron on the approach track to Lochnagar, and lots of A.E. Housman in Shropshire? If poems or parts of poems were engraved on appropriate materials — slate at Ullswater, a granite boulder at the Old Brig of Dee, the glass of a city building — they would provide commissions for young calligraphers and artists as well as pleasure for those who pass by.
As a nation, though, we are extraordinarily reticent about what we are good at. One honourable exception is the village of Fochabers in Morayshire. Its new memorial garden for Famous Fochaberians lists 21 people on two granite pillars in a little heather garden above the Spey. They include the founder of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine, the Hollywood director who designed the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz and the set for Singin’ in the Rain, medical professors, philanthropists, colonial administrators, horticulturists, artists and business people. It is the brilliant idea of Gordon Baxter of the Fochabers firm of Baxters Foods. Fochabers has got it right. A little more pride in the places we come from would do no harm.
The National Art Collections Fund also blows its own trumpet, and quite right too, with its centenary exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. ‘Saved’ brings together a breathtaking array of paintings and objects which the NACF has helped to keep in Britain. A lady standing beside me pointed out that the Heritage Lottery Fund was also credited with helping to buy some of the paintings. ‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ she said, ‘that some lottery money has been well-spent?’ I agreed and couldn’t resist telling her I had been a Heritage Lottery trustee when the painting she was admiring was acquired.
To Essex to give away prizes at Westcliff High School for Boys. It is a successful grammar school and a traditional speech day. The boys are in uniform, the teachers in gowns, the parents there in support. An 11-year-old pianist gives a virtuoso performance of Mozart. You get a firm handshake from every prizewinner, and occasional irreverent laughter reminds you that these well-disciplined boys are full of life and fun. Some heritage body ought to adopt Westcliff High School for Boys as a living memorial of what we lost when we abolished grammar schools. At least there is one alternative to paying school fees. Move to Southend-on-Sea.
To Stratford to see Titus Andronicus — a bit reluctantly as the Senecan horrors and severed limbs don’t make for a very jolly evening. Lavinia’s chopped-off hands and torn-out tongue did indeed send some members of the audience stumbling for the exit in mid-scene, long before Tamora began to eat the pie in which her sons have been baked. All the same, this is a great production and not to be missed, mainly because of David Bradley’s powerful and humane performance as Titus. Arab suicide bombers and Israeli retaliation make the characters’ obsession with revenge — the bloodier the better — distressingly up-to-date.
The leaflet advertising a study day on Titus Andronicus (theme ‘Cannibalism, cooking and revenge’) promises : ‘While the discussion goes on our guest chef rustles up a mid-morning snack. Suitable for vegetarians.’