The craft renaissance

As long ago as the 1960s, the poet Edward James was worried that traditional crafts were dying out. Having frittered much of the family fortune he had inherited, aged five, on supporting struggling surrealists (he commissioned the Mae West lips sofa and lobster telephone from a scuffling Dali) and on backing shows starring his actress girlfriends (‘very wealth-consuming,’ he admitted, ‘because invariably they flopped’) then creating an 80-acre sculpture garden in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico, the man described as ‘the last of the great eccentrics’ decided in his late fifties to invest his remaining money in something more sensible. So in 1964 he founded the Edward James Foundation

Labour’s plans to rewrite the National Curriculum

Michael Gove’s decision to stand down in this election was a reminder that the one really bright spot in the past 14 years was the education reforms he steered through between 2010 and 2014. These policies were vindicated in the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, which showed England climbing the OECD’s international league table and outperforming Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In maths, England rose from 17th place in 2018 to 11th in 2022, whereas Scotland, significantly above England in 2010, fell below the OECD average. I was involved in the most successful of these reforms, the free schools programme. Many of these schools are now

We have lost an unforgettable teacher and one of Britain’s great critics

Tanner, the critic RICHARD BRATBY Michael Tanner (1935-2024), who died earlier this month, had such a vital mind and stood so far above the common run of music critics that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. For a philosopher to concern themself with the inner game of opera is not unknown (think of Friedrich Nietzsche and Roger Scruton). To do it as perceptively and as readably as Tanner is rarer. For two decades, starting in  1996, his weekly Spectator opera column offered as thorough and as stimulating an education in musical aesthetics as one could hope to receive; intellectual red meat served with forensic clarity and a mischievous, subversive smile.

School portraits: snapshots of four notable schools

Queen Ethelburga’s, York Set in 220 acres of beautiful countryside between Harrogate and York, Queen Ethelburga’s College is an award-winning day and boarding school that welcomes girls and boys aged from three months to 19 years and boarders from Year 3. It is known for its high-ranking academic performance. College, one of its two senior schools, placed second nationally last year for A-levels and 18th for all-round academic performance. The other senior school, Faculty, which offers more ‘creative and vocational subjects’, climbed several places to third in the north for A-levels and seventh for overall performance. The college places emphasis on growing pupils into resilient, caring and confident adults. It

Sam Leith

Russia lives on in my mind

My kids, at our local comprehensive, go on school trips to Leigh-on-Sea. I went to a much fancier school, so I went on school trips to Leningrad and Moscow. The first time must have been in 1990. We were all going through dramatic changes; and so was Russia – not that as cossetted, self-absorbed 16-year-olds we were able to take much serious notice. We joked, nervously, gauchely, ahead of our departure about the likelihood that an Aeroflot flight could be relied upon to get us there in one piece. We practised our rudimentary GCSE Russian: ‘Chto eto? Eto GUM!’ (What’s that? That’s [the department store] – GUM.’) ‘Gdye Dom Knigi?’

The great sociology con

My default mood at the moment is bleak despair, although it can sometimes be triggered into nihilistic loathing, which I think I mildly prefer. The most recent occasion this happened was last Monday when I drove through torrential rain to three retail parks in search of an item which – as I found out later – didn’t actually exist. While turning the car around to drive home I switched on the radio and Stephen Fry was bashfully admitting to some fawning sap of an interviewer how bloody brilliant he was. Triggered, right there, at the roundabout where you enter the old coal-mining village of Pity Me. It took ages for

Ancient lessons in oracy

It is encouraging to see Sir Keir Starmer taking a leaf out of the ancients’ book by putting oracy (from Latin orator) on the curriculum. Indeed, on the ancient curriculum, there was little else of such importance. State education did not exist. It was an entirely private operation, designed to supply the elite with the skills necessary to win arguments in political and legal forums. (They alone had the time for such an activity; our ‘school’ derives from scholê, the Greek for ‘leisure’). It began with the young relentlessly analysing language in minute technical detail, e.g. dividing words into syllables, pronouncing, spelling and parsing them, learning grammatical terms, parts of

Britain’s schools are facing an epidemic of bad behaviour

Something troubling is happening in Britain’s schools. This week, the government released its findings from the first national survey into pupil behaviour in classrooms. The results are a hard lesson to learn. But, as a teacher who has witnessed chairs being thrown and pupils urinating on teachers’ cars, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Over 40 per cent of students say that they feel unsafe each week because of poor behaviour, according to the survey. Students have the lowest perception of how well behaviour is going in school. This suggests that teachers and school leaders have normalised lower standards and expectations, to the point that roughly six weeks of lesson time is lost

Progress is coming to our remote corner of Kenya

Laikipia The principal of the local polytechnic was waiting for me in the kitchen. Frequently in the kitchen there is a chief or a surveyor, or geese, or the cats Omar and Bernini, the dogs Jock, Sasi and Potatoes, foundling lambs or calves gambolling about hoping for milk, or stockmen with news of a sick cow, or armed askaris clumping in after a hard night to lay assault rifles down on the counter before slurping mugs of sugar-loaded tea. Bees try to swarm behind the fridge and one day Milka, the cook, primly announced there was a big snake coiled on the shelf of pots and pans. In her Cold

Why are my son’s teachers constantly on strike?

It is a bright Wednesday morning in May. My son, T, a Year 8 pupil, should be at school and I should be working, but instead we are playing tennis. We are also listening to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits because he’s supposed to be studying the play in class so I figure I can cover both PE and English literature in the next half an hour before we head home and I start the work I’m meant to be doing. For them academies are a Tory ruse designed to hand over control of schools to nasty capitalists My son isn’t ill and isn’t playing truant. His school, along

Why Britain is falling behind in the global universities race

Our country still excels when it comes to higher education. Britain has seven of the world’s top 50 universities. In spite of many claims that Brexit would lead to a reduction in the number of foreign students, the intake has never been higher. In 2021-22, there were 680,000 overseas students in higher education in Britain, an increase of 123,000 in just two years. That’s good news for the British economy. A report by London Economics estimated that one year’s intake of students would, by the time their courses had finished, bring in £29 billion in revenue from tuition fees and other income. Importantly, the benefits are spread all over the

British universities are beyond redemption

There’s no doubt that the government has the best of intentions when it comes to clearing up the Augean stables of UK higher education: witness its setting up of the Office for Students to protect students’ interests against ever-more monolithic university management, and more recently this year’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act aimed at safeguarding the interests of both students and staff. However, all this leaves a much more awkward issue: what are we actually promoting? True, it’s the done thing for middle-class 18-year-olds to be sent away to university. True too that you still need a degree to obtain certain kinds of well-paid jobs. But these aside, why

How to succeed in exams

Exams start on Monday. Thousands of A-level and GCSE pupils will be swotting hard for them right now. Some will do well; others won’t. Knowledge and ability are the two obvious keys to success. But there’s another factor that’s often overlooked: exam technique. Having taught thousands of students of all abilities at several leading schools, I know this is a vital reason why some teenagers are more successful than others: they use the right exam techniques under pressure. So what are these techniques?  First and foremost, arrive early. Exams need a clear head and turning up at the last minute is certain to be stressful. Once in the exam hall (which

Bring back the handwritten school report

The end of term is here and parents up and down the country will be awaiting the arrival of their child’s end-of-term report. But I hope they won’t be expecting too many pearls of wisdom from the impersonal emails that will ping into their inboxes shortly.   Ten or a dozen years ago (the exact date varied, school by school), in an act of educational vandalism, handwritten school reports were abolished. Edicts were issued by school ‘senior management teams’ and grudgingly, reluctantly, teachers put their fountain pens and little bottles of Quink back into their desks, never to be taken out again.   The personal touch in the reporting process disappeared with

Why are our universities still cosy with China?

It sounds like something from a spy novel: scientists linked to the Chinese military complex working at UK universities on sensitive technologies, which can be used for weapons development by the Chinese Communist party. Except, this is no novel. This is very much reality. New research uncovered by Civitas has revealed that there are at least 60 individuals from tech and defence conglomerates in China, in addition to military-affiliated defence universities, who have either worked alongside UK universities or who are even formally associated with them. This figure includes at least two active members of the Chinese army (the People’s Liberation Army) who are still working at two separate British

Does Britain care more about pubs than schools?

Politics is about priorities: what do we consider to be important? I worry that Britain doesn’t attach enough importance to children and their education. As the first lockdown eased in the summer of 2020, I was unhappy that pubs reopened before schools. I thought that said something about our priorities as a nation An interview by Liz Truss in New York gives me no reason to change that gloomy view. During the interview, atop the Empire State Building, the PM was naturally keen to talk up the benefits of the energy price support package to be set out on Friday. That package, she was keen to say, will cover not

A character assassination of Rudy Giuliani

Lord help me I love a hatchet job, and you’ll have to too if you want to make it through Giuliani before donating it to Oxfam. This is not just any old biography – it’s a 480-page character assassination. Born in 1944 to an ex-con who broke kneecaps for a living and a mother who was about as ambitious as Margaret Beaufort, Rudy Giuliani excelled at school, qualified as a lawyer and started making his mark as a prosecutor. Across 12 days in 1986, he won convictions against the heads of four New York crime families (the fifth was murdered before he came to trial), a politician from the Bronx

As children go back to school it’s parents who need lessons

Britain’s children go back to school this week. But after months of chatter about grade inflation and the harmful effects of lockdown on learning, is it parenting, rather than schooling, that actually needs attention? New polling reveals that one in ten younger parents think it’s down to someone else to teach their pre-school children to speak. Dig a little deeper and this number doubles to almost a fifth for the very poorest parents. Getting the basics right is seen as someone else’s job. Too many children fall behind before they have even started school. Many never catch up. By the time they leave school, children from the poorest backgrounds are

The Roman roots of Tony Blair’s approach to education

Sir Tony Blair’s Tone-deaf suggestion that Stem subjects should dominate the curriculum of all schools would paradoxically take education back to the ancient world, when education was designed to benefit only the few. Take Rome. Wealth in the ancient world lay in land, which the rich exploited for all it was worth. Needing to protect their investment, Romans used their power to ensure that it was they who governed the state. The education system was designed to train them in winning arguments in the Senate and to protect themselves and their money in the courts. That left the remaining 90 per cent to fend for themselves, most trying to survive

One worldview has taken over the historical profession

Professor James H. Sweet is a temperate man. He seeks to avoid extremes. But he also seeks to be bold in his temperance. You can do that by emphatically stating an opinion that seems above reproach. But Professor Sweet miscalculated. His emphatic bromide blew up, and he was left offering emphatic apologies. For those who have not followed this little academic circus, Professor Sweet, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is also the president of the American Historical Association (AHA). That’s an important post. The AHA has more than 11,500 members. It publishes the American Historical Review, ‘the journal of record for the historical profession in