to quote the first dozen words of Charles Dickens’ great novel, A Tale of Two Cities, though moved to the present rather than the past. The actual paragraph reads:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Whether your are in the early 1800s or 200 years later in the early 21st Century, his description of the paradox that is life is absolutely spot on. Despite many of us feeling the pinch in 2012, we can smile because we are not in Athens, where the minimum wage has just been cut and the unemployment rate in UK equivalence terms has just spiked through 7 million! And much the same is true in Education; yesterday saw the publication of interim grades in GCSE and A level modules; personally for most of our students here, the delights was plain to see on their faces – hard work being rewarded by good results. At the same time, lots of other results of educational activities in schools and outside are being published, and the picture is totally different. I’ll return to Dickens shortly, but I must say I am enjoying the discomfort many modern pedagogues must be feeling at the moment, as their adjustment of what is taught in schools to bring examination advantage at the expense of actual education is shown up to be the folly it always was, by published research. For example, OfSTED have just pointed out the main problem with national music lessons is that there just isn’t enough music in them! A recent survey by Opinion research highlights that secondary school pupils are so scared of looking stupid in maths lessons they will not tell their teachers if they do not understand. And it’s not just about progress in schools in Maths – the pressure group ‘National Numeracy’ quotes from research suggesting weak maths skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness. The National Trust has also reported that children are being denied the enjoyment of the outdoors and nature with obvious consequences for their health, yet few primary schools it seems genuinely give 2 hours over to sport.
I say enjoy because in my own school we really come to work each day to teach the whole child, academically, socially, spiritually, morally, athletically, culturally and then some. This last seven days or so have seen us involved in ‘world everything days’, from Maths, Books, Science, Blogging, Doodling and then some. Our sailors came third in the national two boat sailing championships, (and the second best school behind Magdalen College Oxford), our Under 16s won the national ISA Under 16 7s title up in Leamington Spa, our Year 7s have been romping in the fields with the Sheep and their Lambs and so it goes on. Today (Friday) we are building our BBC school report activities for next Thursday by interviewing the Home Secretary, Theresa May at the senior boys school. Apparently we are informal this year in our approach to TM; a ‘conversation with’ rather than ‘stilted questions’ of!
And to see the support of our parent teacher association at work this week has been the highlight – it is all about play with their outdoor castle installation at Ridgeway, both a physical construction that provides for new play space, but also with effective use of shape and colour, allowance for the child’s imagination to run riot. When schools get it right, the whole community is enhanced; children have their wildest dreams realised, teachers have their dedication rewarded by outstanding learning and parents have their own concerns for the present and future supported by the most amazing network of like-minded individuals – a Dickens story of success without the dark side!
So back to Dickens; what he was amazing at was creating an atmosphere that felt real in a story that gripped from beginning to end. As one critic writes “Dickens’s novels combine brutality with fairy-tale fantasy; sharp, realistic, concrete detail with romance, farce, and melodrama.; the ordinary with the strange. They range through the comic, tender, dramatic, sentimental, grotesque, melodramatic, horrible, eccentric, mysterious, violent, romantic, and morally earnest”. Now Dickens was all about writing for money, he was the most famous author in the world of his time, and he benefited too from touring the States as well as the UK. But he also write for moral purpose, to critique current policy and through his moral tales show his adoring public how the best could be achieved, even by the dissolute. The Tale of Two cities ends when the dubious Sydney Carton sacrifices himself for the honourable Charles Darnay, and ends his life on the guillotine with the words “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.“