Between Lefkas Island and the Greek mainland is a lagoon that embraces an archipelago of small green jewels, including, among others, Skorpios, the legendary idyll of Aristotle Onassis. Cruising those waters two summers ago, my geology student son and I were less concerned with the yachts of the super-rich than we were with the rock formations of the coastline. As he began his treatise on the bands of geological history gliding past our boat, I interrupted him to correct his assessment: "no, that is marine sediment," I said, "not volcanic. This is a discordant coastline". Stunned, he just looked at me, annoyed too, no doubt.
This may not strike you as terribly astounding, that I should know a bit about geology, but I work in opera and I left school with two just 'O''levels. My son knows all this, hence his surprise, and I haven't studied geography for thirty-four years, yet I could tell you all about screes, coastal erosion and urban conurbations like Hexham. I might also give you the odd surprise in relation to Ypres, or John Fowles, and Tutankhamen is a specialist subject. I almost always befuddle fellow holidaymakers, bristling with suspicion as my tattoos, oafish appearance and flattened London vowels impinge on their pool-time. When, unable to avoid me any longer, they warily deign interest by asking what it is I do for a living. "I'm sorry," they say, smiling awkwardly at my answer, "for a moment, I thought you said you were in opera?!"
As David Davis calls for more new grammar schools for impoverished kids, I have reason to find myself partly agreeing with him (although a more fundamental change to our approach to education is required.) I went to such a place, a remarkable school called Woolverstone Hall, and it is the extraordinary teaching I experienced there that, despite my truculent behaviour and rebellious approach to exams, means I am a moderately successful human being. Over the past few years, I have been writing a memoir about my time at the school, mainly as a historical resource, perhaps something to help teach my children about chucking away opportunities, but it never felt to me to be an especially relevant tome, important to anybody beyond my family, friends and those who also attended the school. Recently, however, I feel that almost every concept that my time there embodied, every anecdote of scarcely diverted catastrophe that the book contains, yields a lesson for today's educationalists and cultural leaders.
In the arts industry, we talk endlessly about the criticality of a cultural education, the sort that Woolverstone delivered and which immersed us in literature, theatre, choirs and classical music. Politicians are at it too, but I always have a wary eye on them in this regard because I don't think we will ever return to the sort of teaching I experienced; I see boxes and ticks everywhere I look. Woolverstone's stated aim was to "provide an academic education to boys from the London area", or, in other words, "we will take bright, poor kids and prove they can do just as well as the rich kids if you give them the same opportunities". My school was referred to as the "Poor Man's Eton".
Ultimately, it wasn't quite as simple as that, as the founders of the school (ILEA) discovered, but there was nevertheless a remarkable forty-odd years of experimental, brave achievement before the same founders, under a different form of leadership, destroyed the school out of spite. It might seem extraordinary for me to claim the school was a success when I have confessed to exam failure and a retained propensity to come across as an oaf, but in the very least, I'm not in prison, or dead; many of my childhood friends now are, and so is one of my brothers who fell into the cold embrace of crime and drugs. Yet if grammar schools for poor kids have the avoidance of such outcomes as their primary aim, then they shouldn't see the light of day, because it was precisely these motives that did for Woolverstone in the end as the authorities turned it comprehensive and used it as a "safe" haven. When saving a boy from perceived disaster is the foremost intention, then the aspiration we have for him is far, far too low to begin with. My school gave me a brilliant, if doggedly resisted, education. It pumped my brain full of the brilliance of fine teachers, who didn't care a jot about my home background and expected a great deal of me. They demanded I saw myself as the best and anything less was a denigration of myself. They never said "you can be the best". They said I was the best, setting the bar very high to begin with. What moron, the school figuratively asked, ever decided that a boy from an inner city estate isn't capable of understanding Chaucer, Mahler, Shakespeare or Verdi?
A great resistance to grammar schools exists right now; there is an unseemly, unedifying scramble for places at such schools and whilst the odd working class child gets in, the glut of kids expensively tutored in the eleven plus tend to win out. By selecting bright boys from the inner city, Woolverstone sent the first, powerful message to that child that there was something they could value about themselves. So much for selection; but that isn't all we need today. We need a different set of aspirations, an educational culture that doesn't seek to tailor a curriculum for apparent political success and exam passes, but for genuine knowledge and cultural enrichment that challenges a child's intellect, that isn't crimped into perceived social acceptability or that says, by its very lack of ambition; "you are not capable of - nor do we expect - anything more". As I write, I hear the howls of protest from teachers, government ministers and social commentators, but I have three children, I know what goes on in schools, I know what the curriculum is like, what is missing, what lowly expectations there are and how we seem utterly unwilling to trust our children's ability to learn and absorb, to mentally reach for the sky.
In the realm of culture, we don't render the extraordinary as just ordinary; if we step with our children into the world of opera or theatre, we do so with trepidation, selecting only what won't interrupt the vital work of teaching our kids how to add up in the most convoluted, idiot-proofed way. Astonishing amounts of money is thrown at education schemes by arts institutions, but half of it has to fight its way into schools that are often unwilling or ill-equipped to allow their children the experience (something I consider to be borderline criminality.) Then, worse still, we have to suffer the droning, self-hate of countless twitterati who patronisingly bemoan the lack of working class actors or artists. They should take a look at the cultural curriculum of places like Eton before they talk pish about posh Oscar winners.
My book documents the life of a fatherless, rudderless, angry boy in a world of infinite opportunity. But my brilliant education found its way into the recesses of my mind and showed me, quite literally, that I had a choice in life. Woolverstone may well have sent me out into the world with only two 'O'levels but here is the rub; I decided for myself that I would seek no more than that and the school needn't have concerned itself too greatly with my "failure", because it knew what it had given me during my stay there. It had seen me sing my way through five years in various choirs, taken me to the top of the schoolboy rugby world, knew that I had studied medieval texts, had been instructed academically by talented teachers with lavish methodologies, had trusted me to appreciate Mozart without resorting to internet vernacular or by dressing it in hip-hop clothes, had nurtured my acting abilities, had given me time to muster my aggression and turn it towards a social worth. As I raged against the machine, the machine scoffed at me and told me to pull myself together. Above all, it knew, unequivocally, that it never once allowed or approved of the easy, sanitised option, nor urged me to reach a mark lower than the one they had set for all of us. They never, ever, lowered the bar, and in so doing, even as I fell from grace, I was nevertheless elevated.
I am aware that exams and qualifications are the currency of success these days; it is how it is. But that is the easy path is it not? We can coach, we can cram, we can meet the bright but reluctant working class scholar half-way by softening the questions. Then we can celebrate. Yet we haven't necessarily given him an education that fills his soul for the sake of it, and gives him the tools to gaze critically back at himself when confronted with the vicissitudes of life, or the belief that he too belongs in worlds and places that some would exclude him from. We may have taught him to function, but have we always instilled in him the idea that there is so much more for him to discover and be enriched by? Worst of all, we do not teach that boy to snap back at the many in his own community who upbraid him for seeking to break his shackles.
If David Davis gets his way, then these new schools should start from scratch, go to the archives and dig out everything they can on Woolverstone Hall.
--------"Noisy at the wrong times" is published in March and is available to pre-order