What poems did you learn at school?
I have never much liked the idea of the National Curriculum. I saw what was driving it (let's make it impossible for schools not to teach a foreign language; let's make it easier for kids to move around the country and pick up with school wherever they go). But the whole idea made it easier for a cavalier Minister of Education to impose his own quirks (good or bad) on the nation's children... en bloc.
Michael Gove has just (so it is reported) decided that kids as young as five should learn poetry by heart. And no doubt, if this idea is adopted, it will shortly be followed by the list of 100 poems that they should know.
Let me say straight away that I learned poems at school from the age of, I think, five. When I was at the primary school of which my Mum was head (Church Preen above), we did at least a poem a week from the very beginning. I still somewhere have the exercise book that I wrote out, clumsily, what was to be learned. The very first one was the first stanza of Browning's "Home Thoughts from Abroad" (" Oh to be in England...."), the second was the "Duck's Ditty" from Wind in the Willows ("All along the backwater...").
So why don't I like what Gove is suggesting?
Because it's bound to be one size fits all kind of learning.. and so completely uninspiring. As I have come to see it, my Mum was taking what we children in rural Shropshire knew and making more of it. We knew exactly what an elm tree was -- but we didn't know (as Browning had it) of "the elm tree bole". And we certainly didn't know that our familiar, taken for granted, world was what poets had dreamt of from abroad. And we had seen endless ducks going "up-tails all" but we had never thought that there was something more to it than that.. that you could sing about it, that people noticed. Fifty years later I still remember.. and I hope my co-evals do too.
But try taking "Home Thoughts from Abroad" to a group of inner-city five year olds who had never seen an elm tree...though there are plenty of other poems that might hit the spot and move them on. The same goes for Prufrock .. a careful choice by our carefully idiosyncratic teacher (other pupils got the "Wreck of the Deutschland ", others Bob Dylan's "Baby Blue" to learn off by heart).
It's the sheer over-confidence of Gove I cant stand, not his basic instincts. The job of the teacher is to fit education to the kid (not vice versa).. and having the courage to follow inspired, and appropriate enthusiasm, not just toe the government line (a bit like Radio 4 managing to have a whole day for Joyce's Ulysses). And I dont just mean feeding them what is familiar, but knowing how best to move from the familar to the new.
When my Mum retired in 1975, she got a letter that I still have from the Chief Education Officer in Shropshire. He looked back over her career as a Primary School Head in the county .. starting from the tiny school of Clee St Margaret in 1950. It read: "the headmistress has made a very good beginning ... Some of her methods are unorthodox... there is no doubt that the children have a full and interesting school life".
Unorthodox methods? In 2012 I guess she would have been put under special measures, for not treading the party line.