Sunday, April 21, 2024
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My father’s lesson for the Sunak generation


THE Prime Minister’s current notion that children should study maths until they are 18 prompts the question of just what is wrong with British education in the first place?

As so often, the answers lie in the past. A while ago I opened an old tin box and found my late father’s exam syllabus for commissioned entry into the Army, Navy and Air Force in 1930, which you can see here.

This document provides a fascinating insight into the values and high standards required of the youth of the inter-war years. My father could not read until he was eight and went to eight schools in ten years, yet was offered a place to read history at Cambridge when he was 16. Somehow he overcame the setbacks of his fractured education to be a success. How was this possible?

He was born in 1912 to parents from the Victorian era. In about 1920 they retired early from business and moved to New Zealand where he was sent to a rural boarding school. Corporal punishment was administered with a bush creeper which made the backside bleed.

Later his parents settled in Guernsey where he continued at various boarding schools on the mainland. One summer, as a teenager, he made his way home for the summer holiday only to find the house shut up, with his parents away in Saudi Arabia on a holiday. I doubt if anyone batted an eyelid. He doubtless amused himself with the freedom of a small island. He recalled that, even as a child, he could legally buy gunpowder from the ironmonger which he used to blast fish in St Peter Port harbour, getting into trouble when a fisherman’s lobster pots surfaced. A culture of early self-reliance was then the norm.

His mother decided that Sandhurst was better than Cambridge so at 18 he took the entrance exam and off he went to join the Fourth Hussars doing, as they then did, what you were told by your parents. Masculinity was cherished and he was a middleweight boxer and polo player. He once brawled with a Guards officer who had, in an argument about a girl, poured a cup of tea over his head. It was a mistake. The Guards officer ended up in hospital with concussion and my father was before the Colonel, who told him that while this was a court martial offence, as the victim was a Guards officer he would drop the charge! Regimental rivalry was meant to instil fighting spirit. He was the last generation to learn to fight on horseback and left the Army when they re-equipped with tanks, finally going to Cambridge University in 1937 to read Agriculture. Back in uniform with the RNVR in the war he served on corvettes in the Battle of the Atlantic, later setting up the early degaussing units used to de-magnetise ships’ hulls against magnetic mines. He finished his degree after the war and ran a farm in Suffolk until the end of his life, a much-loved character known for his humour and compassion.

He was a larger-than-life, capable, self-reliant man who took risks, served his country and lived life to the full. Like many of his generation, he was sad at the end of his life when he reflected on the way so many of his friends had died in the war. As a father he was fascinating. He received his commission from Edward VIII who was ‘made up to the nines and looking thoroughly bored’; listened to Churchill read extracts from My Early Life in the officers’ mess, then met him during the war ‘joking with a United States Navy guard about their American mothers’, had drinks with the film star Maureen O’Hara, ‘a big Irish lass’, and tea with David Lloyd George, an ‘old man with long white hair who sat in the corner and didn’t speak’. I didn’t know Lloyd George, but Lloyd George knew my father!

These days such a character would have most likely been served with an ASBO, probably had a criminal record and his parents would have been referred to social services for neglect. He might have ended up in care and had his life ruined by being barred from university for assault. Yet it was confident, self-reliant individuals of that generation who comprised the Armed Forces that saved Western civilisation. Crucially, unlike the current generation, they matured much earlier. A 98-year-old Spitfire pilot, still living independently, was recently asked by the Daily Telegraph for his thoughts on young people today and his razor-sharp comment was ‘ten years younger than we were at the same age’. 

How was my father academically and personally successful with a delayed reading age, a fractured education and absent parents? I think you can judge a nation by the academic expectations it sets for its children. I home-educated my two at secondary level. Whichever way children start their education, all have to squeeze through the GCSE letterbox at 16. This series of exams is highly prescriptive, narrow in remit and scripted to current social mores of equality. There is no room for flair or individual expression. In practice the exams are exercises in civil service performance management with a tick box culture. The whole process is thoroughly insular with a low bar.

By contrast look at the high standards demanded of young men in the thirties seeking a commission in the Navy, Army or Air Force.

They were encouraged to follow great men, great changes, great events and the broad movements of the general life. They had to comprehend the history of Britain from 1660 together with European, Russian, Near Middle Eastern and Far Eastern history. Classics was taught as a mind trainer so competence in Latin or Greek was required, as was fluency in a modern European language, although Arabic and Urdu could also be studied. A broad understanding of scientific principles was backed up with real ability in longhand mathematical calculations. My father tried an early electronic calculator and tossed it aside, preferring to use his brain.

It is possible that along the way some caring teacher took hold of my father’s education and spurred him on. More likely he understood his country’s expectations and got on with it.

These high expectations were the polar opposite of the insular and reductive modern exams and were clearly designed to produce open-minded, culturally sensitive men who were focused on the very best of their own culture.

These were men who like my father could, to quote Kipling, ‘walk with Kings nor lose the common touch’. Could Rishi Sunak understand this or even pass the Sandhurst exam? I doubt it.

I do think, however, that teaching rebel Katharine Birbalsingh, who runs the Michaela Community School in London, would understand. She makes her inner-city pupils sing the National Anthem, I Vow To Thee My Country and Jerusalem, and they read Kipling as well. By all accounts they are very happy and enjoy high expectations underpinned by a clear British identity.

If we want to put the Great back into Britain we have to think Great, aim high, look outwardly and remind ourselves of how and what this country achieved in the past.

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Tristram Llewellyn Jones
Tristram Llewellyn Jones
Tristram Llewellyn Jones is a civil liberties campaigner, home educator and retired airline pilot.

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